February 28, 2011

By Sandra Block, USA Today.

Last March, Brad Veitch, 60, of Moraga, Calif., discovered that his mother, Marion, had given thousands of dollars to swindlers who used the phone and mail to peddle hard-luck stories and get-rich-quick schemes. To stop the fraud, Veitch had to change his mother's phone number — twice

By June, Veitch began to notice that his mother, a former executive for the American Red Cross, was becoming increasingly forgetful and agitated. Around that same time, Veitch lost his job as an administrator for a for-profit school.

Veitch's mother lives alone in a small town in California's San Joaquin Valley, a five-hour drive from Moraga. For a while, he drove to her home every other week, usually for three days at a time. She doesn't own a computer, so Veitch couldn't use the Internet to search for a job while caring for her. He also worried that he would miss calls from potential employers while on the road.

“So much of job searching today is networking,” he says. “When you connect with a person and they say they'll call you back, it produces anxiety when you realize (you're) going to be gone for three days.” Veitch says he's been out of work before, but this time, “The burden seems to be much greater, and I think it is because my emotional reservoir is depleted. So much of it has gone to Mom.”

Veitch feared he would need to hire a caregiver, something he knew his independent-minded mother would oppose. But a group of friends from his mother's church has helped him avoid that step. One friend stops by in the morning to make sure she's taken her medication, another stops by for lunch or dinner, and two check in daily by phone. Their aid has let Veitch, who hopes to be working soon, reduce his visits to once every three weeks.

“The church has really done the day-to-day care,” he says. “If they hadn't been there, I'd be hiring somebody to do that.”

In many respects, Veitch's mother is fortunate: She has a committed support group and the financial resources to pay a caregiver if that becomes necessary. Many seniors don't have those advantages, which means their children are forced to shoulder at least some of the cost of their care. More than 40% of caregivers are spending more than $5,000 a year on a loved one's care, according to a survey by Caring.com, a consumer website.

The economic downturn has made that burden even heavier. Unemployment, wage cuts and furloughs have diminished many families' incomes, leaving less money for caregiving. The problem is particularly acute for women, who are the majority of caregivers. Nearly 40% of female caregivers say the downturn has made it harder for them to care for loved ones, according to an April 2010 survey by Volunteers of America.

The downturn “has had an immense impact on women and their ability to care for older loved ones,” says Jatrice Gaiter, executive vice president of Volunteers of America. “Women weren't making as much in the first place, and a lot have low-level service jobs that don't allow them to have a lot of extra money.”

There are steps you can take to cut costs that won't compromise your parent's care. Five ways to manage caregiving costs:

•Claim your parent as a dependent. Depending on the amount of support you provide, you may be eligible to trim your tax bill by claiming your parents. To do this, your parent's income, excluding Social Security, must be less than the amount of the personal exemption. For 2010, the personal exemption was $3,650; for 2011, it's $3,700. In addition, you must provide more than 50% of a parent's financial support. If the parent lives with you, you can include a percentage of your mortgage and utilities, says Graham Weihmiller, president of Griswold Special Care, a provider of in-home care. You can claim more than one parent as a dependent if both meet the income and support tests, he says.

•Deduct your parent's medical expenses. If you contribute to a parent's health care expenses, you may qualify to deduct those costs, even if you can't claim the parent as a dependent. To claim this deduction, you must provide at least 50% of the parent's financial support, but you don't have to meet the income test, Weihmiller says. In addition, the deduction is limited to medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. Qualified expenses include the cost of a nursing home, in-home health care, dental care and prescription drugs. You can include your own unreimbursed medical expenses when calculating total costs.

•Find out if you qualify for government help. Fifteen states offer a Cash & Counseling program for low-income seniors who are eligible for Medicaid. These programs provide eligible seniors with funds to pay for in-home care, including care provided by family members, says Robin Joy, vice president of marketing for Caring.com. A few other states offer similar grants to seniors who have limited income but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. Your local Area Agency on Aging office can provide information about programs in your state.

•Pay a family member to provide care. More than a third of caregivers surveyed by Caring.com have been forced to quit jobs, take early retirement, reduce hours or take leaves of absence. If you're in that situation, using a parent's savings to pay yourself a salary can replace some of that lost income.

To avoid conflicts and confusion, draw up a contract outlining the terms of the agreement and share it with other family members, Joy says. If your parent applies for state assistance, you may need the document to show how his or her money has been spent. You can find more information about caregiving contracts at Caring.com.

•Don't overlook your own long-term care needs. Veitch says he and his wife have purchased long-term insurance policies because they don't want to be a burden to their children.

But many families with competing demands on their finances have a hard time paying the premiums. Jeannie Parr, 53, of Columbia, Md., says she's looked into long-term care insurance, but has some immediate concerns, such as contributing to a college savings plan for her son, Sebastian, 5.

Parr hopes family history is on her side. For most of her 88 years, Parr's mother was healthy and active. “My mother was a role model,” she says. “She did water aerobics a couple of times a week.”

There are low-cost steps you can take, says Alyson Burns, director of the AARP's Long-Term Care Awareness Campaign. For example, it costs nothing to draw up a living will and a health care proxy, she says. If you plan to stay in your home, low-cost modifications such as railings and better lighting can reduce the risk of disabling accidents.

Long-term care should be “top of mind for everyone over age 35,” Gaiter says. “You must prepare and take care of yourself.”