When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1998, I flew from my home in New York City back to my parents’ farm in Iowa one weekend every month for more than a year to help my mother care for him. It was a tough time. I was exhausted from traveling, juggling responsibilities with my own family and worrying about my mother — and, on top of that, I was concerned that the time and energy I was spending to help my parents would have a detrimental effect on my work performance, my career and ultimately, my finances.
Fortunately, I had a flexible job and a supportive boss, but that’s not the case for everyone — and more and more people may be finding themselves in a similar predicament. Studies project that between now and 2050, the 65-and-over population will more than double in the U.S., and as the boomer generation and their parents age, more of their family members will have eldercare responsibilities that will require them to take some time off of work. A new report released by AARP shows that over the last five years, 42% of U.S. workers provided unpaid eldercare for a family member or friend, and 49% expect to do so in the coming five years.
Eldercare may require an afternoon, a day, a week, or much more to be there for loved ones, to arrange for nursing care, to help with recovery or to handle Mom or Dad’s finances and paperwork. Balancing these responsibilities while caring for yourself and your own family can be challenging enough — but what about maintaining your duties at work? Can your commitment to give care to your aging parent(s) actually hurt your career or jeopardize your financial future?
According to new research, the answer is yes — especially if you’re a woman. The same AARP report finds that the average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who works outside the home and spends nearly 20 hours a week providing unpaid care for a loved one. The financial impact in these situations can be significant: a survey by Working Mother magazine found that more than half of current caregivers reported that they needed to modify their work schedules in order to provide care, and 39% said not being able to accept additional responsibilities at work inhibited their ability to seek or accept promotions.
The financial sacrifices a caregiver makes can come in a variety of forms: the voluntary decision to actually leave a job, job loss due to valid or perceived performance issues, diminished wages due to reduced hours, and raises or bonuses forgone because of an inability to take on new responsibilities. Over time, these financial forfeitures can have a significant impact on how much you can save or contribute to retirement plans and other long-term financial goals. And this just scratches the surface. Other than the possible earning limitations and decreased hours at work, expenses associated with caregiving may add up.
So, in addition to balancing your time and energy to provide care, you must also balance your finances so you can continue to manage your budget and save for your own future. If you are providing eldercare or anticipating that you will in the future, what steps can you take now to ensure that you will stay on track in your career and financially?
Know your rights at work. You have rights and protections at work when it comes to taking time for caregiving for parents or other loved ones. The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) allows covered employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to provide care for a family member with a serious health condition. If you are caring for a parent, inform your supervisor and your human resources department about your situation in order to take advantage of this legal protection, if necessary, and create a workable plan within your company’s policies. If you feel that you are experiencing unfair treatment due to your caregiving obligations and choices, be aware that discrimination against caregivers is a serious issue that is receiving increased attention.
Understand the assistance you might be entitled to. Figuring out various government programs, supplements and services will likely take some time, but it’s worth the legwork: your parent may qualify for benefits that can also provide you some relief. Go to the government-hosted benefits site — Govbenefits.gov — for information. Another resource may be found closer to home; each county or city has a federally mandated Area Agency on Aging staffed by professionals who know about elder programs and services in your area.
Proactively adjust and monitor your financial plan. If you have a budget or savings plan based on certain assumptions about your wages or salary, and things have changed, rework the math immediately. If you are earning less — or anticipating a need to take time off — be realistic and identify where you may need to make trade-offs to meet your financial obligations with less money. Do your best to keep saving for your future, even if it’s in small increments. Having a long-term road map and a savings plan in place to achieve your financial goals can be helpful in making informed short-term decisions, especially when there are unexpected expenses and emotions involved.
Keep your retirement in mind. Leaving the workforce, even temporarily, can seem tempting when unexpected family obligations pop up. In some cases, it may be necessary to do so, and of course, you want to be there. But be aware that exiting and re-entering the workforce is about more than just a weekly paycheck. The ability to maintain your earning power and take advantage of an employee sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b) can each have a significant impact on your finances long-term. Depending on your situation, it may not be possible to remain at work, but consider working with your employer to find a temporary solution that will allow you to remain employed and have access to benefits while you care for your family member.
Being a caregiver for a family member is a rewarding experience that you likely won’t regret, and no amount of money can replace time spent with an ill or aging loved one. But being thoughtful about maintaining your career and adjusting your finances can make all the difference in keeping a sense of normalcy and peace for you and your family.
De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.