The concepts are irrefutable: Not only does every family wish its senior members long life, but each family member harbors hopes of living to a ripe old age him- or herself.
Yet neither growing old nor assuming the responsibility for an aging family member is an easy proposition. I personally assumed such responsibility and found it provided a double-edged combination of high anxiety and deep emotional rewards.
As the number of elderly Americans multiplies, more children must grapple with this situation, since family members provide 80 percent of the care for this nation's aged. Because individual circumstances are always unique, simply try your best and, most of all, remember you're not alone.
Donna Baldwin of Levittown, Pa., has been caring for her mother, Laura Gorka, in her home ever since Laura suffered a stroke nine years ago. "When I brought her home, I didn't know if I would ever be able to leave the house for fear something would happen to her," remembers Ms. Baldwin, who subsequently obtained help from other relatives.
She also discovered a 1,200-member nonprofit organization called Children of Aging Parents and went to some of its local support group meetings to discuss problems and obtain information. It helped.
Another organization, the New York-based Partnership for Eldercare, urges care givers to let go of unrealistic and frustrating expectations, acknowledge their limitations and accept their positive and negative feelings as normal. It also says to get plenty of sleep, eat properly, exercise regularly and practice deep breathing exercises.
"Explain to your children the needs of grandma and grandpa, or whomever you're taking care of, so the entire family can pitch in and understand the aging process," advised Barbara Clark, social services director of Children of Aging Parents, which also serves as a national clearinghouse of information and referrals. Children of Aging Parents, 1609 Woodbourne Road, Suite 302A, Levittown, Pa. 19057, can be contacted at 215-945-6900.
There are legal considerations.
"Choose a family member or friend to have durable power of attorney [meaning it remains valid after the signer is incompetent] to carry out your wishes and manage your financial accounts if you are left incapacitated," counseled Barbara Lepis, director of the nonprofit Partnership for Eldercare, a consortium of the New York City Agency for the Aging and participating corporations that helps employees balance job and care-giving responsibilities.
Another choice, known as a "springing" power of attorney, takes effect only under certain situations, such as if the person is certified incompetent. Partnership for Eldercare, 2 Lafayette St., Suite 724, New York, N.Y., 10007, offers seminars and services to employees of more than a dozen large companies.
Parents should talk openly with families about assets and liabilities, income, investment accounts, wills and housing needs. Learn about Medicare, Medicaid and long-term care insurance. Make financial and legal plans before illness is a factor.
"We meet with a client and perhaps family members to do a comprehensive interview to know them and their situation, such as financial objectives," explained Larry Mashburn, certified financial planner with PPA Investments Inc. in Atlanta.
Common mistakes lead to financial insecurity for seniors and their families, according to Mr. Mashburn. They include failure to:
* Have in effect a current valid will that accomplishes objectives.
* Work with an adviser to consider estate planning techniques to legally minimize estate taxes and settlement costs.
* Recognize the probability and methods of funding long-term care.
* Arrange for charitable planned giving during life and/or after death.