When I was 36 years old, my brother-in-law called me to say that my father had called the police to his house. My father said that a gang of people had come in, propped the door open, and started hauling things out. The police arrived to find everything in good order (well, in as good of order as a cluttered house with 50 years’ worth of stuff can be). They asked if my father was on any medication, and had he forgotten to take it. Clearly, whatever had happened to my father had been in his mind.
My stomach sank when I got that call. It sank because I’d been able to ignore the small signs up until now that my father was beginning to not be able to take care of himself. It sank because his mind was going. It sank because thieves really hadn’t hauled things from his house, and that meant that I would have to do it.
Shortly after this, my father was declared incompetent by two physicians. It was unsafe for him to live on his own. I lived an hour away and had a 7-year-old child of my own; it was not possible for me to check in on him every day nor spend large parts of my day with him. Briefly, I considered quitting my jobs, asking my husband to quit his job, and moving back to our hometown. This was not feasible in the short term. Nor did we know what the long term was likely to bring.
This is precisely the situation that many daughters in America face: how to care for aging parents from another city, often while caring for their own children at the same time. Although it would break my father’s heart to hear me say so, this was the hardest time in my life. I worried all the time about what was happening at his house while I wasn’t there; my job performance was affected; I had to take a lot of time off work and give up one of my jobs. According to a report by the Alzheimer’s Association, women are seven times more likely than men to cut down from full-time work to part-time work to care for a loved one.1
We did hire a caregiver to come in several times a week. However, my parents were “rich enough” to not yet qualify for Medicaid, but “poor enough” that paying a caregiver even a few hours a week was an extravagance. We knew my father was destined for a long-term care facility. While trying to “spend down” his money, I paid myself for the time I spent driving down to get his affairs in order, getting him moved into the same nursing home my mother was in, and emptying and selling the house that my father had built from a two-car garage with his own hands. While this helped us financially in the short-term, in the long-term it hindered my career trajectory, my retirement savings, and our son’s college fund. Although I’ve never dared try to calculate it, a study from MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving figures women lose an average $324,044 in compensation due to caregiving.2
While never officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my father clearly suffered from dementia and loss of cognitive function. There were hours or days, though, when he was amazingly coherent and present – – when he would ask about the house, and what happened to his tools. My father loved that house, which had its humble beginnings as a garage. He built three additions to it, learning as he went, book open on the ground. It was so hard to have to break the news to him over and over that his home and his tools were gone, that he wasn’t going back.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone. It’s predicted that by 2030, over 84 million Americans over the age of 64 will suffer from dementia, requiring 171 hours of care per month, the majority of which will be provided by unpaid caregivers3(66% of which will be women).4 And, regardless of what’s going on in their lives, daughters are twice as likely as sons to step in and fill the caregiving role for their parents.5
That the majority of unpaid (and paid) caregiving falls to the daughters in the family is a fact not lost on my father-in-law. Now in a nursing home himself, he says his greatest regret in life was having four boys, because if he’d had daughters they would be taking much better care of him now.
–Jean Wentz, Production Assistant
1 2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Alzheimer’s Association. (https://www.alz.org/downloads/facts_figures_2014.pdf)
2 The MetLife Study of Caregiving Costs to Working Caregivers: Double Jeopardy for Baby Boomers Caring for Their Parents, June 2011. (http://www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/mmi-caregiving-costs-working-caregivers.pdf)
3 Dementia Care, Women’s Health, and Gender Equity: The Value of Well-Timed Caregiver Support, JAMA Neurology, July 2017. (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/article-abstract/2624330)
4 Caregiving in the United States. National Alliance for Caregiving in collaboration with AARP, November 2009. (http://www.caregiving.org/data/Caregiving_in_the_US_2009_full_report.pdf)
5 Princeton researcher findings presented at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco, August 2014. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/daughters-provide-twice-as-much-care-for-aging-parents-than-sons-do-study-finds/2014/08/19/4b30cade-279b-11e4-86ca-6f03cbd15c1a_story.html?utm_term=.91d545020a33