Delayed childbearing is giving this generation of women dual responsibility for aging parents and young children. Like middle-income Americans pay all the taxes, middle-aged (apologies for the word choice) Americans shoulder the financial responsibility for both the Young and the Restless. Of course, as a product of the teenage pregnancy epidemic of the 1970s, my parents and I will probably be in the “old folks home” together. (They are 17 and 18 years older than I.) Still the time to “woman up” is now.
Some of us have parents who can help us, and others have parents who need our financial help. I have one of each. My mother needs a little help, and my father has more assets than he can spend in his lifetime. Whether your parents are financially dependent or not, you still need to understand and perhaps attend to their affairs.
For my mother, I purchased long-term care insurance. If you think you want primary responsibility for your parents when they get sick, consider this. My healthy mother lived with me one winter to enjoy the Miami weather. I adore my mother. She’s my biggest fan and the warmest most giving human on earth, but winter lasts three months. She left fingerprints of her make-up all over my house. She’s not a healthy cook. So I cooked five nights a week to help her lose 20 pounds. She wanted to clean, but she’s not as good as my cleaning lady so my place was not as orderly as I like. She didn’t know anyone here so she decided to come to work with me every day (no comment). She even reupholstered my office furniture (that was a good thing). When she left I cried, both because I’d miss the talks and walks on the beach with her and because I was overjoyed to have my home back. Through that experience, I made some beautiful adult memories with my mommy, and I learned that when my mother gets elderly and sick, I need professional care for her.
If you have parents who need help, please remember that charity starts at home. It absolutely amazes me how many people write checks to charity when their families are a charity case. If your parents don’t own their home(s), there’s your charity. If they don’t have long-term care insurance, that’s where your charitable contribution should be going.
So it is up to us to ensure that our parents have a solid plan for aging. Where will they live? How will their health be attended to? Will you be able to provide any supplemental income for their entertainment and fulfillment in their later years? Even if your parents are not wealthy, they usually have something—a bank account, a house—make sure those assets pass to you (and your no count siblings, if any) without probate. And make sure there is enough cash on hand to pay for their final expenses.
It is important that you understand their finances when your parents have wealth as well. Will you be inheriting a job? Managing a family business? How leveraged are their assets? How quickly can these assets be monetized? Is adequate insurance and estate planning in place to protect those assets from litigation, creditors, your parent’s serious illness or disability, your sibling(s) drug problem or tendency to overspend, that pretty young thang your dad is sizing up, your parents’ fear of losing control over their money before they die? Indeed, dealing with a financially independent parent can be more difficult than dealing with a more dependent one because the dependent one is incentivized to listen to you. So start having money talks with both parents.
I don’t have any children of my own (yet), but I have a 13-year-old sister who is like a daughter to me. I was her first babysitter for the first six weeks of her life. I never knew anything could sound that loud—for so long. I had to carry her from one end of my father’s home to the other ALL DAY LONG. When I sat down, that loud sound would start again until I resumed pacing duty. Those early days with my sister made me realize that I could never be a single mother (not without full-time paid help). So, if I have a child in my late 30s (or even my early 40s), by the time the child graduates college, I’ll almost be eligible for social security! This means, my child will not have come into his own financially when I’m retiring. Unlike when women had children in their 20s, the children of us late bloomers won’t be able to take care of us.
In fact, a big shift should become visible in the domestic economy in the coming decades. Not only will our children not have to take care of us financially, they also probably will not be starting out saddled with the six-figure debt that many of us incurred because our young parents could not afford to pay for our education. So our children have got it made when you think about it. (And so do we because we get to enjoy them without significant financial worries.)
Still, we don’t want to do too much for our children. Just educate them and teach them how to fish. Doing anything more may be counterproductive. We risk creating a new generation of lazy adults. And there’s nothing worse than a sorry adult, really.
I should have put this one first. We cannot help anyone else until our own financial house is in order. There is cheap debt (e.g., student loans) available to the young and government programs (e.g., Medicare, Social Security) available for the elderly—for now anyway. But the only thing available to those in the middle is work and the savings and investments from work.
So we need long-term care insurance, retirement savings, life insurance, health insurance, and proper estate planning documents in place. But there’s no need to become overwhelmed by these awesome responsibilities. You’re probably doing better by your family than you think. In fact, most of us are worth more dead than alive anyway.
So as we tackle various aspects of planning for three generations, let’s continue to check items off our own bucket lists. My bucket list item is to take six months off from work before I’m 50. I’d use the time to write, learn a foreign language, play tennis and swim every day. I’d only dress up when I’m going to the opera, drive a Vespa (with a little basket for groceries) as my primary mode of transportation, cook healthy, delicious meals, invite neighbors over to share my meals, some fantastic wines, and witty conversation. Six months, who am I kidding? I’d never go back to work!