The Sharpened Quill

Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly
Tarrytown, NY, USA
December 31
non-fiction author/speaker/consultant
Bio Author "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail" (Portfolio, April 2011), deemed "an excellent memoir" by Entertainment Weekly. Out in paperback July 31, 2012. I also edit other writers' work -- everything from thrillers to business books. Email me for hourly rates; references available.

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NOVEMBER 17, 2010 8:53AM

Nice Gals Finish Last -- Financially

Rate: 18 Flag

Here's a cheery reminder from a Globe and Mail story -- Canada's national daily -- that women are screwed financially in old age if they devote their midlife time and resources, as many now do, to caregiving.

I've spent much of my workdays, (which is my only source of income as a freelancer), on the phone and email so far this week dealing with social workers, nurses and lawyers to discuss what happens next to my mother (divorced, few friends) who lives a six-hour flight away in Canada and who is now in the hospital.

It remains to be determined whether she will be able to return to living alone in her home.

As her only child, I can't turn to anyone but my partner for help. We're lucky she gets as much free government-supplied help and health care as she already does.

Another friend my age, a woman who is also a writer, devotes many hours every week cooking and caring for her in-laws. Her two sons, looking for work, are back at home. 

We're both very fortunate in having husbands and partners who earn a decent wage and, while our labor is necessary to the family income, it is not the primary or exclusive one.

(This lowered family income does not come without conflict. I could certainly earn more and spend less if I ignored my mother's complicated needs.)

Every hour and dollar spent, lovingly or not, devoted to the care and needs of others is wage-earning (or re-charging) time lost to oneself or one's other current and future financial needs.

The less money women earn (and we out-live men, statistically which means we need to earn, save and invest even more than men while typically working fewer years and earning less), the poorer our old age will be.

Caregiving often means financial disaster for the person giving it. To whom does your duty lie? 

What if your parent(s) were neglectful or abusive? Made lousy choices financially and with their health, and now, as a result of those choices, need (your) help to survive?

Too many of us are struggling in a terrible economy, with little or no leeway for our own needs, now and in the future.

What's the answer?

Turn your back on your aging parents and/or your needy adult children?

Just say no?

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My sister ran into this problem when my parents both became ill. She was in the middle of a career transition but ended up spending weeks and even months on end in Florida. While she became adepts at navigating the details of the Florida health care and social service options (such as they are), she wasn't really able, for a period of three years, to fully manage her own professional affairs. It took its toll.
Which begs the (not very pleasant) question -- what, if anything, are these parents able or willing to do to compensate their kids for this severe loss of income?

Rescuing my mother seven years ago after a brain tumor was discovered (safely removed) cost us $4,000 in last-minute travel costs. That's a fortune in our household.
My sister and I debated this point. She reimbursed herself for the cost of the airfare, which she couldn't afford at all. And she finally got some recompense as the administrator of the will. But what happens when the parents are broke?

What most galls me and what I think you may be getting at is that my sister, as the single childless and youngest daughter (I had just become a widow but I was saddled with my own paperwork) was EXPECTED to come down and take care of them. My older brother was never considered; they felt "lucky" if he eve got down to see them--which he did once. My girlfriend, who was a widow with three kids when her parents got sick, was also expected to do the caregiving--not her brother.
As an only child with an 81 year old father, I can relate. I'm just not female.
This is especially hard when there are siblings who feel they have no responsibility and you are the one who shoulders it all.
rated with love
I figured this would hit a nerve! It strikes at the nexus of love/duty/money/work/family (of origin verus of nurture/birth). Just because it's the "right" thing does not mean it's going to be easy or workable or manageable.

I have been told I am lucky in being the "only" child as I do not have to face lazy siblings or fight over how to handle things. I'd rather have some help; my partner resents my lost attention, time, money.
My own parents were so abusive and neglectful that I don't think they would have the nerve to impose on me to nurse them through their dotage. I am glad they have lots of money.
It's not only financial, but these matters also create an emotional strain between your partner, and take a toll on one's sense of love versus moral duty.
Rated with sympathy.
Thanks Fusun. It's hard to stay focused on my own work right now, but what Al-Anon reminds us is to do exactly that...Without external support or understanding, it is overwhelming.
Actually, death is tidy, as long as there is a will. Sick old age, with much of that illness self-created, is much messier.

And it's a simple fix if you have living space to accommodate your relative(s), which many of us do not, let alone the legal BS of trying to change countries from one with health care to one that would bankrupt us.
Boy, is this the story of many couples we know. We're in a fortunate situation in that my brother is a retired cop and has the time to devote to our ailing mother at the nursing home. But all the legal and financial issues can be overwhelming.
When my father died while I was in college, many thoughts came through my mind. He wouldn't be a raging alcoholic any longer, and he wouldn't be depressed or having any more heart attacks. He wouldn't walk me down the aisle or hold my children on his knees. He wouldn't require care in his old age or have the burdens of dementia and cancer care put on his children's shoulders. And, in that, I found some peace. My mother lives in a country with the best social medicine in the world, and she costs them a small fortune in constant daily care, and hospitalization and social services. None of us could pay for her to live with us for a week, and she'd lose all of her benefits if she lived with us. Just rushing over to take care of anything for her, as my sister recently did, cost probably close to 10k in flights, rental cars, moving expenses, etc. Had she stayed in the US, she would have died long ago from lack of care.
And what about people who refuse to take care of themselves? I am talking about diabetics who won't manage their diabetes, people who won't take their synthetic vitamin D to prevent seizures because it "makes them constipated" and those of us who won't get routine physicals/recommended procedures that might keep bigger issues at bay (example: mammograms, colonoscopies). Who takes care of them when they get sick? Oh that's right, my mom.
I don't have kids, but I will tell you I do have older parents. They were pretty abusive to me in childhood, and disrespectful of me in adulthood. I am not going to bat an eyelash if they suffer or become ill. My back is turned forever. They may be related to me by blood, but they are in no ways my family. I think the thing that parents need to realize is every second of their life thier kids are judging them, and if it is there time in need the abusive, neglectful, disrespectful or bigoted behavior may indeed have a major consequence when they need it most. If that adult child determines "ye guilty" that is it, do not expect any type of caregiving.

I feel no regret for turning my back on my aging parents, the abusive bigots deserved it. May their conservative judgemental queerphobic selves suffer in old age and die an extremely painful agnozing death. They may be blood related, but they are in no way my family and I feel in no way obligated to them any more, in fact I cannot see them as anything else other than abusers. I am not going to risk my own financial health for the sake of their well being when they have proven to me they could care less about mine.

My duty lies to myself, not those who rejected who I am, abused me throughout childhood, and made my life as misreable as possible as an adult.
Yeah... I could have agreed with this just based on the title. I've spent my life caring for my children, husbands, step-children.... and I am broke, have always been broke and unless one of my kids does really well and drops a basket of money on me, will stay broke. When so much in put in the hands of one person, how can they push forward with career, educaton, etc. I put myself through school and am now a teacher, but doing it while raising two kids alone wrecked my health. Now I"m really tired. And now my mother is aging rapidly so this will be the next step in the caring process. This living apart/separate income thing all made sense when we thought the marriage thing was a good option. If that fails, good luck.
I was lucky....sort of. Both my parents dropped dead suddently.
I am married to an oldest daughter, meanwhile my brother, who is a chef, is the chief caregiver of my mother.

Are there alternatives? Sure. But are they pleasant?

Part of having a society is that we care for eachother. It might even be how we are wired - what separates us from the apes.

The fact is, we do care for our old and are eventually taken care of by someone (or we die alone).
These were the types of decisions I had to make, so your post is a painful remembering for me. I am fortunate that both my partner and I agree on family priorities; I moved to Florida with her to help look after her elderly mother, and when I was frequently across the country looking after my own mother, she fully supported it.

I have a friend who has given up a career to caretake first her father, and now her mother. Her parents understand what she has sacrificed, and are leaving almost everything to her, so that she won't be destitute when she is old. As a consequence, her sister, who has contributed very little except "helpful" advice, is barely speaking to her.

Finally, it's my understanding that women who stay home to raise children receive no Social Security credits while out of the official workforce. There is plenty to think about from your post.
I understand this post so well. It terrifies and saddens me. Good luck with your mother, and good luck to all women who give so much of themselves, and get so little in return. R.
A good subject, Caitlin and a lot to think about. The first thing that came to my mind, however, was "who is going to take care of me?"When you have children I think you see more of the full "circle of life" and know that someday it will most likely be your turn and hope to god one of your kids will take care of you.
I understand this and have seen it played out several times in my family. In our case, love trumps other variables.
We had had the care of my parents for 12 years, beginning when we still had children at home and continuing until my father died this summer. Now we're adjusting for another round because my mother has lost his companionship. When we were first casting about for a way to manage, as their home at the time was three airline hops or 24 hours drive time away from ours, a good and wise friend said to me, "Don't be afraid to ask for what you need. If it would help for them to move here, ask them. If you need their doctor to certify them for skilled care, ask him." My husband has contributed countless hours without complaint.

As for the money, I don't think there's much most of us can do but make the sacrifice if we can't rearrange our careers. Abandoning one's parents isn't really the right thing to do in many circumstances. Sometimes — often — it sucks, but I also have trouble with the idea that we have a right to live comfortably at the expense of others close to us.
Thanks for all your thoughtful comments...

I am getting totally conflicting advice from all sides, which is complicating matters for me: my Dad (divorced from her 40+ yrs ago, remarried, widowed) says "you owe her nothing"; her social worker (!) tells me to work on my relationship with her (excuse me? with an alcoholic?); her own doctor told me to attend Al-Anon (somewhat helpful but not with $$$ or practical details or decision-making.)

I haven't lived with my mother since I was 14; she was bi-polar and it was too stressful;now she is alcoholic...I am deeply sympathetic to illness (she has survived several cancers) but not at all to irresponsible choices left for others to clean up.

But, unless someone was utterly abusive -- as some are -- how do you turn your back? We're not wealthy, as most people are not who must cope with this. I see too many single women, self-employed, draining their slim funds to care for distant, ill parents -- they have no back-up!
I also have no children. Whatever will happen to me in my old age is something I have to plan and save $$ for as best I can --- which adds to this conflict between my mother's needs and my own. My father, at 81, is in excellent health and much better off financially.
and if you're a man and don't have the financial resources to protect yourself in old age you're damn lucky if the "new" woman sticks around. this goes both ways. i guess you're not a republican.
Ben, I have a green card so I cannot vote. I don't identify with either party much, but am likely more liberal than many Republicans.
It's a sad fact of life, that in these transitional decades of technological change, the old traditional survival solution, ala have a lot of children so someone can support you in your old age is in direct conflict with the actual modern need to provide for oneself. And that is what puts the sacrifices into sacrificial love, or a nursing home.
Now you know how nice guys have always felt!
There are also women who step out of the mainstream labor force to raise and care for children. Should divorce happen down the line, the spouse that was all to happy to have his wife stay home with the kids, then turns the tables & acts as if full-time motherhood is nothing more than watching Oprah and banging down bonbons. She has to fight for fair settlement in many cases & when she tries to get back into the workforce, she is penalized for her time away and can't find a job.

And then her own elderly mother (or father or parents) need her.......
As soon as we were engaged my fiance's mother needed full-time care. I moved to Boston to be with him and hadn't found a job so I had the time to give her. Caring for her these past 6 months, we've developed a very close relationship. What is difficult is he does a lot of business travel during the week and the rest of his family (as in the ones in her will) hasn't stepped up. I understand they have lives to lead but it's daily work for no pay (insurance ran out, services too high, she doesn't want to leave her home) and it would be nice if one of them picked up the phone and asked how I'm doing or if I need anything or just a simple thank you. To me, the hardest thing about being a caregiver is not what you give up (money, time for yourself) but the total lack of appreciation for your work. If I didn't see my fiance and his mother as family, I'd have left months ago. Needless to say, the current situation has put a tremendous strain on our relationship as well as made me loathe his family. As a matter of fact, we are spending Thanksgiving apart because his brother can't watch their mother so we can fly together to California and see my parents.
katyb, I have seen far too many of this sort of discarded wife. Too often, the husband also has the $$$$ for a (much better) attorney in any divorce settlement, as well.'re a saint. I know if it were me, I'd be on the phone to some of these family members and make clear that your new role is NOT to be their mother's slave (even if you like her a lot). I don't envy you such a heavy burden, unshared and unappreciated.
I enjoyed this! Happy writing. :)
The one galling figure that always strikes me is that a single mother makes 23% of what a married couple do. This problem is the one that needs to be remedied. Jobs that are typically "manned" by women don't pay as much as those typically manned by men. I understand that being a garbage man is difficult and dangerous work and they should get high pay, but lab techs, nurses aids, receptionists, bookkeepers, should get higher pay. Raising the minimum wage tends to raise all lower level salaries. R
David, thanks. Great point.

Women end up on a thankless and terrifying hamster wheel: earn less, have little to no negotiating power; marry and have kids, have less time, money and energy to find a way into (much) better-paid work. Hope to hell that your husband doesn't bail because, if he does, good luck getting alimony or child support.

Women need to make as much money as possible, save as much as possible, go into marriage with their own assets, bank accounts, credit history and excellent FICO score and, if they come to a marriage with assets, a pre-nup.

I think many women remain woefully ignorant of how bad things get for most of us and hope, somehow, they just won't. My favorite book, ever, is "Women Don't Ask" a business book by Laschever and someone that examines the many reasons women, routinely, refuse to negotiate well or effectively for higher wages and salaries, raises and promotions.
Tom, interesting point of view. I don't think labeling me as "sexist" addresses the larger, fact-based point -- women earn less than men and they live longer. That means they need more money saved (or a very good pension, as if they still exist for 99% of us) and a very healthy SS payment (ditto) so they can live (well) for the additional eight or so years they/we are likely to live.

Women are -- unlike most N. American men (bless you for your kind-hearted generosity) -- very heavily socialized and rewarded emotionally (or shunned as nasty selfish wretches) for rushing to care for everyone. But themselves. So women, wanting to be "nice" do so and blow their limited funds and -- whoops! -- end up (again statistics) in much more likely chances of a very poor and scary old age than men who 1) earned more 2) saved more 3) have higher SS payments 4) turned their backs very easily to the pleas of the needy relatives who asked for help.

I know too many women (and very few men) who wrecked their careers and bank accounts running to the rescue of their aging parents and/or their adult children
The women in our circle of friends in NYC who married the guys who made the big bucks stayed home for the most part, and enjoyed being mothers even if they played lip service to the revolution.

The ones who had to work because the guys had trouble earning were the most unhappy, and the ones who kept pushing no matter what to compete were the worst mothers and usually their marriages ended. Why be married to a man in a dress?

If there are issues of pathology involved, like addiction or other forms of mental illness, it is another matter, and needs to be looked at from a broader perspective. The children of such marriages can present a challenge because of the likelyhood they will "dump" their views on the unsuspecting and try to unduly influence the needs of the society at large. A culture that no longer supports the family will degenerate.

You get what you project, and the greatest victories are often won by those who you least suspect--and rarely fall prey to ideology and that includes feminism. Did you read Friedan's last book? Few did but she became convinced the movement went too far and the losers were all those children with all those divorced parents battling to the death who refused to grow-up.

The women who opted for careers only as they approach retirement alone are the saddest in my view and were probably the most vulnerable to begin with. You don't get to do it again with the same consciousness.
Ben, I am not clear where you are going with all this....My post is about women who choose to care for aging parents and/or adult children, a choice that becomes more difficult when: 1) the woman has little disposable income or savings of her own 2) likely because she does not earn much. I don't see where feminism or children of divorce fit into this issue -- you either help or you don't.

Women who face retirement alone, if they have good health, many close friends, interests and money are just fine -- certainly compared to those stuck in lonely, dead marriages. A woman alone is no worse off than a woman in a horrible relationship who just looks like she is with someone, but is too scared or broke to leave.
P.S. If you have funds to protect, or no one to look after you, or parents who are irresponsible you fear will turn to you, I strongly suggest looking into Long Term Care Insurance. In this country, given the evolution of the nuclear family rather than the extended family, it isn't a's common sense.
Wise advice for many people, Ben. The challenge is that it gets more and more expensive as you age and have, likely, less and less income.
But better than nothing.
Tom, you are a binary sort of guy, aren't you? I think there is some gray area between doormat and bastard, and it has yet to be defined in my situation. I don't buy into all the political labels because these decisions are deeply personal -- you help out, or you don't, or you help out a lot (more than you can handle emotionally and financially) or you help out a little (and maybe it doesn't look like much to others but it is the very best you can do.)

The emotional dilemmas stem from whatever your family matrix has been -- for some people, the chance to give back and nurture their aging/ill parents is a great gift and one they treasure while for others it is something much more complicated. There are all sorts of things I don't discuss in public but which inform how I think and behave, as there are for many of us. Blogs which contain personal stories contain some of the truth but, for many of us, not every single relevant detail.
Good thing, then, Tom, I don't lose a lot of sleep worrying what people think of me! What an interesting way to see the world. Black/white -- no shades of gray. Very different from me. It's instructive to remember -- which OS does so efficiently -- how very very very differently some people think from one another.
I couldn't agree with you more Caitlyn. It is always the nice girls that finish last-- financially. That couldn't be more true.
Thanks for sharing this Caitlyn, this has made me feel better. :)