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Downturn Puts a Chokehold on Those Caring for Family Members

Resource type: News

The New York Times |


Teresa Denk is 59 years old and lives with her father, a former mechanic who is 92 and requires constant care. Ms. Denk has not held a full-time job since 2000, when her mother developed cancer and required her daughter’s full-time care.

Asked how she meets her monthly expenses, she said, ”I do a lot of praying.”

The economic crisis has spread its pain widely, but it has placed special stresses on the estimated 44 million Americans who provide care for an elderly or disabled relative or spouse, many of whom have already made themselves financially vulnerable trying to balance work and family. Many like Ms. Denk, who stepped away from the work force, are now facing ever-bleaker prospects. 

In a recent survey of 1,005 caregivers, one in six said they had lost a job during the downturn, and 21 percent said they had to share housing with family members to save money. The survey was conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and Evercare, a division of the United Health Group, which provides long-term health care.

In many cases these caregivers, who rely on help from the government and nonprofit organizations to make ends meet, are finding that such services are being cut in the downturn and have had to assume even more care-related expenses.

”All the calls we’re getting are, ‘Is there money to assist me, either pay me to be a caregiver or assist me in other ways, like provide pro bono services,’ ” said Suzanne Mintz, president of the National Family Caregivers Association.

Caregivers spend an average of $5,500 a year as part of their responsibilities, not counting lost wages, according to a 2007 survey by the National Alliance for Caregiving.

For Ms. Denk, who lives in Rainbow City, Ala., the recession has narrowed her options even as her expenses have grown. Before she left the work force, she was a preschool teacher, worked at Wal-Mart and took a class to become a medical coder. But that training is dated now, she said. As she approaches retirement age, she has no savings and expects minimal Social Security benefits because she has not worked for nine years. According to her last notice, she said, if she starts collecting benefits at age 62 she will get about $450 a month, not enough even to pay the $520 rent on the apartment she shares with her father.

Even with her father’s benefits of $1,100 a month, she said she has had to buy less food — ”or less healthy food” — because her expenses have gone up.

”I try to do a little work for Avon,” Ms. Denk said, ”but my daughter can only give me one day a week to help with my father, and anybody else I’d have to pay to come in.”

Ms. Denk added that the money she could make working part-time would not be enough to pay for home care for her father. ”Agencies charge a minimum of $15 an hour,” Ms. Denk said, adding, ”I might be able to earn $8 to $10 an hour.”

Lucinda Hardy and her father, Warren Hardy, are feeling the squeeze on several fronts. Ms. Hardy and her husband, Tim Church, both work, but their income is falling because Mr. Church’s hours have been cut.

But their big problem is the housing market. In November, as Mr. Hardy’s health deteriorated, he moved from a condominium 15 miles away to a trailer home near his daughter. He took a $75,000 mortgage and expected to sell the condominium to pay off that debt. But he has had no offers.

Now, on a fixed income of $1,700 a month, he spends two-thirds of that on his mortgage, trailer park fees, condominium association fees and utilities on both homes.

”He doesn’t have enough income to meet his expenses,” Ms. Hardy said.

This year for the first time he was unable to send money to Ms. Hardy’s sister for her birthday, he said.

”It doesn’t make me feel very good,” said Mr. Hardy, 93. ”I’m under a great deal of strain. I’m worried I might run out of money. I had to go into my savings, really taking it down terribly. I can’t go on like this forever.”

Mr. Hardy tried to avoid debt all his life, and the strain of having it makes him unhappy with the trailer and sometimes unhappy with his daughter for having encouraged him to move, Ms. Hardy said. ”He says it was a bad decision on my part,” she said.

She added, ”I’m the closest person to him, so I’m the one who hears about it.”

”If my mother was still alive,” Ms. Hardy said, ”he’d have a spouse to vent his frustrations on. Isn’t that why we marry? He doesn’t have that, so he vents them on me.”

Caregivers often struggle with isolation even in a good economy. In a recession they can become completely cut off.

Marianne Szalega and her sister Carol take care of their parents outside Detroit. Carol Szalega, 56, lives with them in their home; Marianne Szalega, 55, goes over every afternoon. Both sisters would like part-time work, but neither can find it.

”For people who quit their jobs to take care of their parents, there’s no stimulus plan for us,” Carol Szalega said. She has written a children’s book and would like a writing job she could do at home, she said. ”But the computer crashed, and there isn’t cash around to buy a computer. I can use Marianne’s, but that takes time away from my parents.”

She fears leaving them alone, she said, because if anything happened to one of them, the other would not notice or call the hospital. And if strangers came to the door, her parents would just let them in, she said.

Marianne Szalega, who has been a hairdresser and a gardener, recently completed a state training program to work in the film industry, where jobs pay well, she said. ”But,” she said, ”I wonder how I’m going to do that because I’d be gone a majority of the day.”

In the meantime, both she and her sister are approaching their 60s with no health insurance, no savings and worries about their own future. ”Neither of us have children,” Marianne Szalega said.

”There isn’t going to be anybody around to help us, so we have to prepare for our own future,” she said.

”But how?”

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Global Impact:

United States


economy, financial crisis, recession