Caregiving can be one of the hardest things we ever do, but also one of the most rewarding. And it’s a role that changes over time and at different life stages. It can include caring for:
Each of these roles comes with unique responsibilities, emotions, and financial challenges. Indeed, it means the duties and definition of caregiving for any individual is always changing.
And most of us will find ourselves in a caregiving role at some point in our lives, or even for the majority of our lives. One widely-cited study by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Alliance for Caregiving estimated that 53 million U.S. adults had provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months.
Here’s a look at the different caregiving roles that face most of us at some point in our lives.
Pets are often the first rung on the caregiving ladder. When we take pets into our home, we accept the responsibility to feed them, give them water, exercise them, take them to the vet for regular checkups, and care for them if they get sick. Sometimes, we must make excruciating end-of-life decisions for a terminally ill or aging pet. All these tasks take time and money, and a sick or injured pet can be emotionally and physically draining.
Then there are the fun parts: the snuggles, the treats, the adorable behavior quirks, and the endless photo opportunities. In return for caring for them, our pets reward us with years of unconditional love and constant companionship. And, of course, some pets also fulfill important functions in certain circumstances, like being a watchdog or mouser.
Financial concerns at this stage of caregiving include budgeting for the ongoing costs of pet food and pet care, increasing emergency savings to account for your pet’s needs, and possibly purchasing pet insurance to defray major and unforeseeable medical expenses. (Related: Pet insurance basics)
And having a pet can teach us what we’re capable of when it comes to caregiving that may inform the responsibilities we choose to accept or delegate in the future.
Babies and Toddlers
If we make the leap into parenthood, pets may take a backseat to the endless tasks of childrearing.
“When caring for a newborn, parents are obsessed with four things: feeding, elimination, sleep, and SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome],” said Nicole T. Rochester, a pediatrician, a caregiver, and the CEO of Your GPS Doc, a company she founded to help patients and family caregivers navigate the health care system.
You must also provide for their financial needs. (Related: New parent checklist)
Once your first child is born, you should strongly consider purchasing life insurance. If you pass away before they’re financially self-sufficient, a life insurance policy will provide for them — and for your spouse, if you’re married. You’ll also want to start a college savings fund, but prioritize your retirement savings. (Calculator: How much life insurance do I need?)
Before you know it, the newborn phase ends and the toddler phase begins.
“Caring for a toddler is all about safety and development,” Rochester said. “Parents want to ensure that their child is walking and talking at the right time, or early if they're lucky. It is also a time filled with worry about choking, falls, burns, and other safety hazards.” Rochester knows this not just from her professional experience, but from her personal experience raising two daughters.
At this stage of life, parents face paying for child care or accepting the all-consuming task of full-time caregiving. The more time a parent spends out of the workforce caring for a young child, the harder it can be to reenter the workforce later. But time spent at work is time you can’t spend with your child. Parents have to make tough decisions about balancing family and career and what they can afford.
“Child care is insanely expensive in almost every region of the country,” said Holly Flanders, founder of Choice Parenting childcare coaching services in the New York City metro area. In New York City, parents should expect to pay $4,000 a month for one child for a nanny, or $2,500 to $3,500 for day care depending on location and educational philosophy, she explained. This puts a lot of financial stress on families either to pay this monthly bill or to have a parent leave his or her career to take the lead as the children’s primary caregiver. In the latter case, “the woman is usually the one who ends up taking the backseat in her career to stay at home to care for the kids,” she said. (Related: 5 reasons why women should be selfish…financially )
Once your children are in school full time, you might need to make the work vs. pay-for-child-care decision all over again. Having a child in school frees up a caregiving parent to work at least part time and can free up some money as well, since there are fewer hours between school and the evening when your child needs paid supervision if you’re at work.
Those two changes can ease the financial stress you’ve experienced in the baby and toddler stages. If you’re committed to full-time parenting for the long haul, the financial pressures don’t change when your kids enter kindergarten, though. In either case, you’ll still want to be saving aggressively for retirement and college.
The emotional aspects of parenting shift yet again at this stage.
“When your child goes to school, you shed tears as you reflect on their budding independence. However, you also breathe a sigh of relief as you welcome the opportunity to reclaim your time,” Rochester said. (Related: What high schoolers need to know about college aid)
“Then comes homework, the bane of every parent's existence. In this phase, you begin to feel like an octopus as you juggle the demands of home, work, school, after-school activities, and that dreaded homework,” she said.
For Rochester, having school-aged children coincided with caring for an aging parent. She’s not alone. One out of every 10 American parents is also taking care of an adult, according of the Pew Research Center. She took care of her aging father for three years before his death in 2013.
“This, by far, was the most stressful time of my life. The needs of a school-aged child and an aging parent are so completely disparate that there is no way to successfully multitask and you sometimes feel as if you will lose your mind,” Rochester said. (Related: Millennials enter the sandwich generation)
Once your kids head to college, you may be in or nearing your peak earning years, but you may also have huge expenses thanks to bills for tuition and room and board. Resist the urge to sacrifice your retirement to cover those costs. While your children can borrow to pay for college, you can’t borrow to pay for retirement.
You can ease the burden of paying for college by learning how the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) categorizes parental and child income and assets for financial aid purposes, then making adjustments to maximize your potential financial aid package. You can also start preparing your child in freshman year of high school to have realistic expectations about what kind of higher education your family can afford. This is also an ideal time to teach them about the consequences of student loan debt and how borrowing could both expand and limit their future choices. (Related: A primer on college financial aid)
And how do you deal with actually sending them off?
“Caregiving for a college-aged children is like standing near the edge of a cliff, closing your eyes, and jumping,” Rochester said. “It requires you to trust that you've deposited all the information and advice they need, that they have internalized your family values, and that they will make responsible, intelligent choices when Mom and Dad are not there watching. Part of you wants to hide in their dorm room closet so you can jump out and kiss their boo-boos when they need you. But your rational mind realizes that this is a time to step back and allow their newfound independence to develop.”
Taking care of your parents
Caring for aging parents may be the most challenging caregiving task of all.
“There is no such thing as parenting the parent even when care needs escalate, like bathing and diapering,” said Joy Loverde, author of “Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?” and “The Complete Eldercare Planner.” Speaking in a parental tone of voice, giving unsolicited advice, or making demands “is demeaning and disrespectful, and crosses healthy parent-child relationship boundaries,” she said. (Related: Talking finances with your aging parent)
Loverde said to avoid statements like these:
“I told you this four times!”
“You need to eat better.”
“You’re going to the doctor and that’s that.”
Instead, favor statements like these:
“Mom, have you given any thought to what you might do if you did not want to live alone in this big house anymore?”
“Dad, have you heard about these places that deliver home-cooked meals?”
“Partnering, not parenting, will help keep relationships intact,” Loverde said. You want to minimize the struggle to maintain control and independence and help keep parents in the driver’s seat by asking questions to help them evaluate for themselves whether their abilities are impaired.
What about the financial aspects of caregiving for an aging parent? Ideally, by the time your parents are 55 or 60, they will have evaluated options for handling long-term care costs. (Related: Long-term care insurance)
Without preparation, however, you may end up being your parent’s primary caregiver. Not only is this job emotionally and physically challenging, it can be a financial nightmare. If you take time away from work for caregiving, you lose current income, retirement contributions, and work benefits such as health insurance. Your lifetime earnings will be lower, potentially giving you lower Social Security benefits when you’re older, because Social Security benefits are based on your 35 highest-earning years. (Related: Buying life insurance for your parents)
You might also find yourself paying some of their bills: AARP’s 2021 Family Caregivers Cost Survey found that 78 percent of caregivers are spending their own money on care for another adult to the tune of more than $7,200 per year. Most of that money goes to household and medical expenses. (Related: Buying life insurance to cover your parents)
The bottom line
Whether you’re caring for a puppy, a school-aged child, college kid, or a senior parent, caregiving always involves big decisions about where to direct your time and money. And caregiving always involves some level of personal sacrifice that’s often thankless. Most who have been there, however, say the experience will pay emotional dividends and strengthen the bonds with those you’re responsible for.
“Each phase of caregiving has its own peaks and valleys, but I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything in the world,” Rochester said.
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This article was originally published in October 2017. It has been updated.