More adult children making room for their cash-strapped folks

Sue Martin does her best to be a dutiful and loving daughter.

So when her 84-year-old mother finally retired from a family electronics business — at age 82 — Martin bought the small three-bedroom ranch house next door to her own home in Claymont, Del., and moved her mother in.

It hasn’t been easy. Martin, who’s divorced, had planned to retire next year from her job as a legal assistant at a pharmaceutical company. But while she has a retirement fund of her own, her mother does not.

So now, Martin plans to work, indefinitely, to help cover the portion of the mortgage and living expenses that her mother’s Social Security and small allotment of food stamps don’t. “She’s still very independent, just broke,” says Martin, 59.

Indeed, Betty Gresick is spry and healthy. She’s an avid piano and bridge player and is able to drive to visit friends in the Delaware town where she and her late husband ran the family business — one that, unfortunately, had little net worth when she sold it.

“He didn’t look past his nose when it came to the future,” Gresick said of her husband. “So here I am with nothing to show for those years.”

Even into adulthood, there is this notion that parents will be there to take care of us, emotionally or financially, possibly with a nice inheritance. That’s still the case for many families.

But increasingly, adult children such as Martin are finding themselves cutting into their own savings and retirement funds or even going into debt to support their aging parents.

“The fact of the matter is there’s only so many dollars to go around,” said Dan White, a financial adviser with Daniel A. White &Associates in Glen Mills, Pa.

He and others see it all the time: Retirees are facing significant health care costs. They’re living longer, so retirement funds are being depleted. And now rising prices, for everything from food to gas and heating oil, are only making matters worse.

Recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau found that the number of parents who’ve moved into their adult children’s homes increased 67 percent, from about 2.1 million in 2000 to 3.6 million last year.

Other children are supporting parents who live in a separate home and who, in some cases, aren’t even of retirement age.

“It’s a lot more common than people realize,” said Donna Wagner, director of gerontology at Towson University in Maryland. “One of the issues is that people don’t talk about this, maybe only to their best friend.”

Wagner, who oversaw a caregiver survey last year, found that respondents spent an average of 10 percent of their income to support parents.

She recalled one woman from the survey who was among a small group who kept a diary. She had four siblings, but was the only one willing to have her dad, who was 50, move in with her.

“He just couldn’t keep a job. There’s all that kind of messy stuff, too. It’s not just sickness,” Wagner says. “There are a lot of people operating on the margin.”

She said the last she heard from the woman was about a year ago, shortly before the woman’s phone was disconnected.

A product of the Depression era, Gresick prides herself on her ability to do without and to help herself when she can.

So to cover her bills, she got a job playing piano during Sunday services at a nearby church. She and her daughter reported the income to the Social Security Administration — and they, in turn, cut her benefits by the same amount she was making.

“Basically, it’s a bummer,” Gresick said.

They are appealing. But in the meantime, Martin has had to pick up more of her mother’s growing expenses. Besides covering a good chunk of the mortgage, she pays for her mother’s water and lawn care and tries to help with the monthly heating oil bill, which has doubled from $100 to $200 since last year. She also gives her cash whenever she runs out.

On weekends, they eat dinner together. And Martin cooks “lots of extras” so she can send them home with her mother for leftovers for the week.

“It’s tough having an older family member, trying to give them the same quality of life as they always had,” said Martin, the only member of her family who’s in a position to help her mother right now.

Gresick, meanwhile, watches as her friends take shopping trips and travel, “hither and yon.”

“Fortunately, they have not asked me to do anything I can’t afford,” she said.

She doesn’t sound sorry for herself when she says this — maybe just a little surprised that she’s in this position. Her own mother, who lived to 100, didn’t travel until she was 80, she says. “I’d love to do that, too,” Gresick said. “But I can’t.”

Some investment firms and employers have begun offering services to address the stress and worry associated with aging, especially as the oldest baby boomers hit retirement age.

Harris Private Bank, for instance, offers a service that helps adult children coordinate their parents’ bill paying, tax returns, investment management and even their health care services.

OppenheimerFunds Inc. is among those that educates financial advisers with a growing number of clients in the so-called “sandwich generation,” those who are supporting both aging parents and their own children.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca PLC, the pharmaceutical company where Martin has worked nearly 20 years, is among employers that offer eldercare benefits. They include assessments of an elderly relative’s medical, social and functional needs, with recommendations for support and care. There’s also an eldercare support group with about 400 employee members, as well as some reimbursement for last-minute in-home care for a parent or child.

If nothing else, Martin said it would be nice to have someone to talk to about her situation. “I do feel kind of alone,” she said.

She mentioned several times how much she loves having her mother next door.

But beyond delaying retirement, she’s also had to cut back. “Oh, let me count the ways,” she said, noting how she used to take regular vacations, private ballroom dance lessons and trips to the opera.

She also discovered that her mother canceled her life insurance to save some money, so she’ll be responsible for her burial expenses. So when Gresick mentioned that she was going to cancel her insurance for in-home care, Martin quickly stepped in: “Oh no, you’re going to keep that one,” she said.

Hugh Delehanty, editor-in-chief of AARP Publications, knows what it’s like. He helped take care of his father and now helps support his mother-in-law.

“People sacrifice their own dreams sometimes,” said Delehanty, co-author of the book “Caring for Your Parents.”

He has little doubt that those sacrifices will only become greater in this economy. “But I think there will be an upside to all of this,” he said. “It will bring people together and strengthen connections.”

Besides the time she gets to spend with her mother, Martin said she has experienced that connection. She sings in the church choir now and goes to Bible study. She’s also gotten to know her neighbors better.

Still, both daughter and mother are worried, wondering if the day will come when they’ll have to move in together.

“We love each other. But you can’t have two bosses in one house,” Gresick said with a slight chuckle.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that. But if it does, I would accept that gracefully.”

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