For many people, whether to help an aging parent isn't even a question. Three-quarters of Americans say they believe it's their responsibility to provide financial assistance to a parent if needed, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report. "It's just me," said Mandy, 56, who is caring for her 93-year-old mother in New York's Queens borough. (She asked that her last name be withheld for privacy concerns.) "She's my mom. What else am I supposed to do?"
But the financial effects of caregiving can add up fast. "Nobody ever realizes that not only are they doing this, but it's going to cost money, too," said Schall of the Caregiver Action Network. Even if the care recipient has assets or insurance to cover most expenses, caregivers spend an average $5,500 out of pocket each year, he said. The TD Ameritrade survey puts the annual financial support figure closer to $13,000 to help out mom and $8,500 for dad.
Ornstein, who has regularly worked outside the home on a part-time basis over the years, says caring for her mom makes a full-time job impossible. "Despite all this care labor I have put in over the years, when you look at my Social Security statements, it seems like I've done very little," she said.
Aside from the disability, her mom is healthy at age 69, but Ornstein worries about her falling on the stairs at home. She's also concerned about her own health, with symptoms of back trouble after years of lifting her mother and grandmother. And she worries about her own financial future. "It's scary," said Ornstein. "You can't plan because you don't know when things will change."
Tory White, 52, said when her mom needed to transition to assisted living in 2010 for her dementia, the $3,200 monthly cost came out of her own pocket initially until Medicaid, Social Security and other programs began to cover most of the bill. It was a struggle, White said, to balance her mom's wish to stay at home against her own limits. "I thought that love would take me through," said White, who has been caring for her mother since 2007. "I realize now, the duty and the love have to be balanced." (See her caregiving story in the carousel, above.)
It's less common to see money flow the other way, from a parent to the family member providing care, said Schall. Even if the parent has enough savings for that, doing so creates other problems. "There can be family dynamics where other siblings resent if it's taken out of the family reserves," he said.
The stress of the role can also add to caregivers' health-care bills. Caregivers are more likely to suffer from depression, said Schall, and report higher rates of chronic conditions including heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. "You feel guilty thinking about yourself, but you have to," he said. "It is taking a toll."
Caregivers' costs are enough to strain budgets. Only 28 percent of so-called sandwich-generation adults supporting an aging parent and children say they're living comfortably. About 11 percent don't have enough to meet basic expenses, according to the 2013 Pew report.
In the TD Ameritrade survey, 22 percent of financial supporters said they have had to dip into savings, and 14 percent have added to their debt, which is already significant, at an average $22,000 in nonmortgage debts like student loans, credit cards and personal loans. A third have delayed saving for retirement.