Some ‘Free-Loaders’ Who Live With Elderly Parents May Be Giving More Than Taking

Michelle Singletary
Columnist October 7, 2013

This online feature may include questions adapted from my weekly live chat. It’s also an opportunity for me to answer questions I couldn’t get to during the discussion. I may also respond to questions you send by e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com, Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

One reader wanted to weigh in on an answer I gave to a sibling worried that he might end up financially responsible for a 52-year-old freeloading brother living with his elderly parents who were paying for his car, living expenses and making his child support payments. I wrote that if you have a financially irresponsible adult sibling, you are under no obligation to take care of the sibling after your parents die. Here’s the column, which elicited the following question:

Q: Did it occur to you or the letter writer how much care two elderly parents can require? I am similar age, with a doctorate. I cook, clean, shop, do personal finances, coordinate, attend medical appoints and do all driving for my 85-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s. She pays me for my work, which I use to keep up on my rent and health insurance. Of course, I could make more money working, but I am taking care of my mother. My older and younger brothers think I am a freeloader. Yet I’m going broke, wrecking my retirement options and my career.

Singletary: There was no indication in the question I received that the sibling was doing much other than taking money from his parents. It seemed clear that the parents were taking care of the 52-year-old son. I mean, really, making his child support payments? So, in that situation, the sibling was right to be concerned that his parents’ retirement funds were being depleted caring for the brother, who hadn’t decided to stop work because he was taking care of them.

However, in other situations it might be the case that everything an adult child is doing to care for aging parents isn’t acknowledged or recognized by his or her siblings. A Metlife study found that nearly 10 million adult children over the age of 50 care for their elderly parents. They take off a lot of time from work or quit working to become full-time caretakers. And the result can be costly.

The financial impact of caregiving on the individual female caregiver in terms of lost wages and Social Security benefits was estimated to be more than $300,000 in total lost wages, pension and Social Security benefits, the 2010 survey found. In looking at all caregivers of parents, the estimated losses reached nearly $3 trillion.

If you are a caregiver, get your siblings to help. Have regular family meetings so that you can communicate how much you’re doing, especially if you’ve become a full-time caregiver and your parent or parents are paying you for your services. You need to be transparent about what’s going on so that you aren’t viewed as taking advantage of your parent.

But if, after talking, you still can’t get your siblings to appreciate what you are doing or they continue to quip that you’re freeloading, take a day off and let them walk in your shoes. (You probably need the respite, anyway). Let them spend some time caring for your parent. Perhaps then they will understand how much you’re sacrificing emotionally and financially.

Follow me on Twitter at @SingletaryM, or connect with me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.com.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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