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The Color of Money

Start planning now if you may have to care for an aging parent one day

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post / May 16, 2010

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The time has come.

As the nation ages, millions of adults will find they are thrust into caring for an aging parent or relative. My husband and I have just joined this group. We recently began taking care of my father-in-law, a fiercely independent, 81-year-old former military man. His basic living needs — walking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning his house — have become too hard for him.

So for now, he’s living with our family. My father-in-law would rather be living on his own. We are trying to make that happen, but he can’t move home without daily help and supervision.

I recently participated on a panel on elder care hosted by Volunteers of America, a nonprofit that provides human service programs to seniors, veterans, and families. It was a sobering discussion when you consider that by 2020, 12 million older Americans will need long-term care. And when they need that care, they will realize that they and the caregivers they will have to lean on are woefully unprepared for the cost.

“As a baby boomer myself with parents in their 80s, I find it hard to face the reality of preparing,’’ said Vicki Bendure of Volunteers of America. “They’re in relatively good health at the moment, but we have yet to discuss the grueling particulars, and my sister and I and our families just continue to pretend the inevitable isn’t going to happen. I feel like there’s a tsunami on the horizon.’’

The burden has largely fallen on my husband and me to figure out the best situation for my father-in-law. But the most distressing thing about this situation is that he is caught in the middle of a conundrum so many seniors face.

He is too rich for most government-funded social programs and not rich enough to pay for full-time, long-term care. He was a good steward of his resources, but still it’s going to be tough for him to afford the care he needs.

He has health insurance. He has Medicare. But contrary to what many people assume, Medicare generally does not pay for long-term care, which assists people with activities such as dressing, bathing, and using the bathroom. Medicare helps pay for medically necessary skilled nursing or home health care, if you meet certain conditions.

Medicaid will pay for some long-term care services, but it’s limited to people with low incomes and limited assets.

I’ll be writing about our experience and what resources we find. One place I’ve explored is www.medicare.gov, where you will find a “Long-Term Care Planning Tool.’’ You will be asked questions that will help you start the process of finding long-term care.

For now, I have a little advice to offer. If you have even an inkling that you may become the caregiver for an aging parent or relative, start planning for it now. Ask questions about their finances.

Get your own finances in order because it’s likely you’ll have to pitch in financially. Just prepare now. The time will come before you know it.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post.

SOURCE: Bloomberg News