Thanks to modern medicine’s ability to keep us alive, looking after ageing parents has become a very likely scenario for many middle-aged couples. Couples who, we might add, are often also busy raising young children.
If you’ve noticed your parents getting a little wrinklier around the edges, it might be time to have a think about what your future is going to look like. Once your parents are no longer able to look after themselves will they move into a nursing home? Or will they relocate to your family home? If, like many post-GFC retirees their savings have been decimated, who is going to pay the bills that come faster than the years tick by? Are you ready to become part of the sandwich generation?
If you are currently raising young children and thinking about the possibility of providing care to an elderly parent you’re about to become part of a generation that finds itself in the unique position of playing caregiver to two vastly different dependants.
This generation has been fondly dubbed the "sandwich generation" — a generation of folk who are simultaneously looking after small children and ageing parents at the same time.
Carol Abaya, the journalist who got the term accepted into the Oxford English and Merriam Webster dictionaries, says it's not easy to become elderly or a parent to your parents. "Our society says adults should be able to take care of themselves," explains Carol. "But, as more live well into their 80s and 90s and families are dispersed across the country, everyone is going to be involved somehow, some way, in elder care," she counters.
Findings from a 2012 survey, conducted by Just Better Care, show that 31 per cent of people from New South Wales would prefer to quit any job and commitments to provide full-time care for their parents over arranging for them to be cared for in a nursing home.
"I see that as a very positive thing that so many people would want to look after a family member," says founder and director of Just Better Care, Trish Noakes.
"It’s a significant sign. It’s a huge thing to say, 'I’ll give up a part of my life'. It’s a lot of commitment for people. It shows that Australia, as a society, is prepared to look after their family members."
If you’re planning on taking care of your parents in their old age, maintaining some separation will be beneficial for everyone so do make sure you have space to allow your parents their own bedroom and bathroom if possible, ideally on the same level as the kitchen and living room. If you have a granny flat on your property then this is ideal — though perhaps not the outcome any teenage offspring hoping for their independence will be happy about.
If your home has stairs that can't be avoided, you may need to plan for a stair lift or vertical lift to be installed. You probably won't need to do this straight away but it is something to think about as it will require additional funds in the not-too-distant future.
Finally — if you have siblings then you may want to consider parent sharing. Aim to have your parents staying with one of your siblings for a month out of each year to give yourself (and your parents) the chance to take a break and enjoy some quality time apart.
While Australia may have missed the brunt of the global financial crisis (GFC), one disadvantage that is being felt by older Australians has been the decimation of their retirement savings. Those planned "relaxed and comfortable" years are about to become anything but for many retirees.
Unfortunately, longer lives also aren’t necessarily synonymous with healthy ones and the cost of living for older Australians is rising thanks to expensive medications, hospital stays and the search for suitable accommodation. Children who want their parents' last years to be comfortable may find themselves footing the bill for more than they bargained for.
If you think you’ll need to be supplementing your ageing parents' income, or covering the cost of having them live with you, it’s a good idea to budget in the cost of necessary home modifications, medicines and taking leave from your job. You may be eligible for a carers allowance so make sure you check out the criteria on the Department of Human Services website.
Even if you’re not financially responsible for elderly parents, you may still need to take control of their finances at some point. For example, if your parent is really sick in hospital or suddenly dies, you will find it virtually impossible to communicate with their bank, insurance company and superannuation fund if you don't have a Power of Attorney or Guardianship in place.
"Encourage your parents to update their will and to ensure that they have Enduring Power of Attorney and Guardianship in place while they are still fit and healthy," says James Gerrard of PSK Financial Services.
"This will ensure that a loved one who understands their wishes will be able to make financial and lifestyle decisions should they be unable to do so for themselves."
No matter how old your parents are or how good a life they've had, when they pass it's still going to hurt.
In most cases if your parent dies at home you will need to call your parent's doctor and a funeral director who will lead you through the next steps. If your parent dies in the night it's okay to wait until morning before you make the appropriate phone calls. You can use this chance to say your final goodbyes before their doctor arrives to sign a death certificate.
Emotionally, you may not feel so put together. You may feel numb, lost and distracted and unwilling to accept what’s happened. This is all perfectly normal — as is feeling a sense of relief — so try and process the emotions as they occur, cut yourself some slack and find someone to talk to.
Caring for a parent as they age can be a challenge but it can also be immensely rewarding. With a little bit of preparation you may find the memories you make over the last years of your parents' lives are something you and your children will cherish for a lifetime.
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