The current economic downturn brings to light the obvious – the vulnerability of anyone who has not prepared to weather the financial storm. According to a recent report, Living Longer on Less: The New (In)security of Seniors, produced by The Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP), a research institute at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, 78 percent of all senior households are financially vulnerable. The vulnerability comes from inability to meet housing costs and healthcare costs, negative budgets, lack of available home equity and lack of adequate assets.
Many seniors will succumb to these vulnerabilities and be rendered dependent on state aid. A significant number of those who succumb to state aid do so because of prohibitively high healthcare costs, particularly long-term care costs, which are generally not covered by Medicare or any health insurance plans (other than long-term care insurance policies, which few seniors have).
Other societies have found answers in multigenerational living arrangements. Such a system did indeed flourish in this nation as well and continues to exist to some extent even today. However, it is all but lost to the majority of seniors, who throughout their lives expected to remain independent all the way to the end and not become a burden on their children. As a society we have succeeded in creating an expectation of self-reliance. The issues such an expectation creates are nothing short of heartbreaking in most cases.
Take, for example, a recent conversation I had with a dear friend of mine who has been caring for his wife for over 14 years. In his early 60’s, my friend’s wife was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He took care of her, encouraging his children to live their lives while he took early retirement to care for his wife.
As time passed, the care needs became more significant and he tried home healthcare and day health services, which met the needs for a while. However, in the end, with no dependable assistance from family members, my friend found no other solution than to place his wife in an institutional setting, which cost him over $90,000 each year. He searched for a legal solution to try and preserve his estate of about $700,000. At the present rate this nest egg would have allowed him to care for his wife for at least seven years, but for the current economic downturn.
Worried stiff about the dwindling resources, my friend opted to divorce his wife in order to obtain Medicaid benefits to cover her significant care costs and to protect his savings for his own future care needs. And this is not the sad part.
In our conversation my friend was lamenting the fact that his decision had alienated him from his children, not that they ever made time to help him with his wife’s care needs before he decided to divorce her. In fact, they had visited her no more than a handful of times throughout the past year, just as they did with him.
The previous Christmas none of his children invited him to their house, even though he had arranged for a gathering on December 27th with all of them. By coincidence, a few days before Christmas he happened to run into his son, daughter-in-law and family at a restaurant. In this chance meeting his daughter-in-law told him she was busy getting ready for a large crowd coming to their house on Christmas (her side of the family); as an afterthought she added that if my friend was bored at home he could drop in. Devastated, my friend chose not to say anything about it. But the episode looms large and gnaws at him each day. Are these the children he raised? Is this what life amounts to in the end?
Multigenerational living is not a solution for all families, not because we lack the capacity to live it but because the lifestyle is alien to us. Our drive to live independently and not be a burden on our children has become all too common. We are the sad victims of our own success. And unless attitudes change, silent devastation will continue to victimize most of us in a time when we are most vulnerable.
In my own family, my mother-in-law lived with us for 11 years. It was more of a culture shock for my wife than it was for me, chiefly because I was born in India, where multigenerational families are the norm.