Nice Girls Finish Last — Financially

My Grandfather (†); photo from January 17.JPG
Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a cheery reminder from a Globe and Mail story — Canada’s national daily — that women are screwed financially in old age if they devote their midlife time and resources, as many now do, to caregiving.

I’ve spent much of my workdays, (which is my only source of income as a freelancer), on the phone and email so far this week dealing with social workers, nurses and lawyers to discuss what happens next to my mother (divorced, few friends) who lives a six-hour flight away in Canada and who is now in the hospital.

It remains to be determined whether she will be able to return to living alone in her home.

As her only child, I can’t turn to anyone but my partner for help. We’re lucky she gets as much free government-supplied help and health care as she already does.

Another friend my age, a woman who is also a writer, devotes many hours every week cooking and caring for her in-laws. Her two sons, looking for work, are back at home.

We’re both very fortunate in having husbands and partners who earn a decent wage and, while our labor is necessary to the family income, it is not the primary or exclusive one.

(This lowered family income does not come without conflict. I could certainly earn more and spend less if I ignored my mother’s complicated needs.)

Every hour and dollar spent, lovingly or not, devoted to the care and needs of others is wage-earning (or re-charging) time lost to oneself or one’s other current and future financial needs.

The less money women earn (and we out-live men, statistically which means we need to earn, save and invest even more than men while typically working fewer years and earning less), the poorer our old age will be.

Caregiving often means financial disaster for the person giving it.

To whom does your duty lie?

What if your parent(s) were neglectful or abusive? Made lousy choices financially and with their health, and now, as a result of those choices, need (your) help to survive?

Too many of us are struggling in a terrible economy, with little or no leeway for our own needs, now and in the future.

What’s the answer?

Turn your back on your aging parents and/or your needy adult children?

Just say no?

14 thoughts on “Nice Girls Finish Last — Financially

  1. I am reading this while staying at my mother’s place to look after her, over 800km from home. We also have a decent, though not perfect health service, but I have been forced to come down here not only because of my mother’s health but because the health service does not seem to give urgent attnetion to a possibly fatal health condition unless there is a relation jumping up and down in close vicinity to the health professionals.

    In the midst of this I have negotiated a two month full-time contract with mercifully sympathetic employers. I am also fortunate that while I am in a different state, the archives here hold relevant material pertaining to the state that I am researching.

    This is a huge problem that women face. I have spent years in part-time work and part-time study looking after my children, now I am facing years looking after my mother. There are no other relations old enough, in good enough health, and able to drop everything to move to my mother’s city. It is up to me.

    I am saving the government a considerable amount of money by taking care of my mother (and my grandmother years ago), but I am becoming increasingly concerned about my lack of financial resources for when I am old and in poor health.

    However, I don’t for a moment question where my obligations lie. I figure that my mother spent years caring for me, it is only right that I care for her. Governments might be willing to take on responsibility for looking after the sick and elderly but they will never ever be able to do as good a job as friends and family. There is an important emotional element in caring for someone. It is not just a matter of going through a checklist and catering for the person’s physical and financial needs. A person’s well-being and health is enhanced by the conversations with friends and family. The confidence, so necessary for enhancing their everyday functioning, is increased by encouraging words or simply having someone by their side to minimise problems caused by impaired abilities.

    It is important for every society that families provide these social services to their members. But this can only happen if society supports the carers.

  2. You make many important points.

    The larger challenge is when the parent has been neglectful or has destroyed their own health through smoking/drinking and other behaviors. What, then, do we owe someone who refuses to take responsibility for him/herself?

  3. Mary

    Boy, I am just dumbstruck by this column tonight. I am 60 and lost my Mother just shy of my 50th birthday, when she was 73. Mom was my best friend and confidante as I grew up and out of the house, although we had the typical screaming matches (me screaming, usually) over kerfews and spending money and boys.

    My mother, like many of her generation was a smoker. So was I for a few years, and I got her to quit when I did in 1988, but by then, she already had COPD. She had grown up in Western PA where coal dust was everywhere, and she had gotten pneumonia as a child that weakened her cardiovascular system,

    All of which I relate for the purpose of saying, I didn’t care then, and wouldnt care now, if she had been a heroin-popping junkie, much less a smoker of her generation. It was my privilege to care for her once it became clear there was not enough time to reverse the damage done to her lungs. My sisters and brother did what they could, but the bulk of it, I took as my own. My chance to spend time with her, and help her for all she had done for me.

    To say your original post sounds feckless is probably straying too far into MIND MY OWN BUSINESS, but you posted it, so I feel compelled to tell you how ungrateful you sound. Even if your Mother was not June Cleaver, she did the best she could, I’m sure, within her capacity. And to parenthetically rat her out for “being divorced/having few friends” sounds off-handedly and needlessly cruel.

  4. Your mother was lucky to have such devotion.

    There is a great deal of backstory not included in this post and that informs my thinking on this matter. As much as I’ve revealed here, there is much more to our history, and whether that would alter your reaction is moot.

    I may sound ungrateful to you; others have told me many times to simply walk away. It doesn’t alter the larger issues that many of us face.

    If your parent(s), and some are, were neglectful or abusive, you have the adult choice to turn away. Judging others for their deeply personal choices is disrespectful. You’ve labelled me after referring to a very limited set of data.

  5. I have given your comments lots of thought and obviously I only know what you have chosen to reveal. Paradoxically the situation you face is a chance for you to shine, even if nobody is there to witness it. If you make sure you look after yourself while looking after your mother you will grow as a person and gain new strength which will stay with you for the rest of your life and inspire others.
    No family is perfect and mine certainly isn’t. What family has missed out on the vicissitudes of the 20th century unscathed? Accepted child-rearing practices such as ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and ‘a child should be seen but not heard’ have done untold damage to so many people and this damage is then shared with the next generation. Then there are the various serious physical and mental health issues that have sadly afflicted countless people over the generations. Obviously some families are more affected than others, but I would be surprised if any have sailed through this unscathed. I have researched my family history of resentment – it is multi-generational and given various circumstances I can understand (but at the same time not excuse) why some people in my family behaved the way that they did. We are now working on stopping the cycle of resentment and improving our child-rearing practices.
    The most important thing for carers is that they look after themselves and do not get overwhelmed by the act of caring. It is at times like this you will find who your friends truly are. Make sure that you are regularly in touch (preferrably face to face) with someone you can share your burden with but who is not a member of the family so is a bit removed from the situation and can be your sounding board. I don’t think this is the kind of support you can find online.

  6. Your readers can only go on what you provide here. Even if we could intuit whatever pain you carry, it doesn’t change the fact that YOU have the power to be more compassionate than what you obviously feel your mother deserves. If you treat her with the same disregard your tone here implies, then you have learned nothing other than ‘an eye for an eye.’

    Any acquaintance who tells you you should just walk away is only telling you what you want to hear. If you posted this missive looking for support, perhaps we aren’t mimicking what others have said, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t sympathetic. But sympathy and understanding doesn’t and shouldn’t have to come at your mother’s expense.

    And couching your concern in terms of how it negatively impacts your wage earning and leisure ‘recharging’ time, when her life or care hangs in the balance, is maybe not the way to elicit the support you are looking for among an audience without all the facts.

    At any rate, I don’t mean to be disrespectful. But I can’t join you in this attempt to turn your back and walk away. And for the record, my mother wasn’t lucky to have me. I was the lucky one. Me and the scores of (adult) neighborhood kids who attended her funeral, who found in Mom a safe haven growing up.

  7. I did not post this to elicit support — nor to turn this into a forum for judgment — but to prompt a larger discussion of an issue affecting many people, some of whom walk away, some of whom rush forward in support.

    You assume her “life and care hang in the balance” — which, while a dramatic image — is inaccurate and not the case. Again, working with insufficient data isn’t effective.

    Without knowing all the facts, which aren’t for public consumption, people can make all the suggestions or condemnations they please.

  8. The question you raise, Ms. Kelly, is a good one, as usual. What *do* we owe abusive or self-destructive parents when it comes to their end of life care? It could be argued that we owe them our lives, if nothing else; after all, without them, where would we be? However, the same could be said of many things in life. We owe our lives to doctors who keep us in good health, even our spouses and friends who keep us sane. So, debt of life can’t honestly be a contributing factor when we owe our continuance of life to so many others beyond Mum & Dad.

    It is my feeling that we owe our parents exactly how much care and concern we are given throughout our time with them. In my case, my parents have always been supportive, concerned with my well-being, and did their utmost to see that I was taken care of. Therefore, I owe it to them to return those gestures in kind when their time comes.

    However, if my parents had been raging alcoholics who beat me to a bloody pulp every night before doing a nightly drag of cocaine, what do I really owe them then? They are/were adults who made their own choices to destroy their bodies as well as attempt to destroy their child in the process. Personally, I would have written such destructive forces out of my life the minute I became of age.

    As adults we have the choice of whom to allow in our lives and who we don’t, which relationships are beneficial and which are not. If it means cutting off a cancerous branch of the family tree, I’m all for it. A person shouldn’t have to bleed their soul (or their bank account) dry out of familial obligation.

    People can harp and hound all they want about what an evil, self-centered perspective that is, but until they’ve lived a person’s life, experienced what they have with all its tragedies, they really have no call playing judge, jury, and “persecutioner”.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

      Again, without getting into endless details about own situation, it wasn’t idyllic: a parent’s mental illness affected my years ages 12-25 and now her severe alcoholism is the problem. In both instances, the choice can be made to do whatever sustains your health — or destroy it. I have not lived with my mother since I was 14 because I wasn’t willing to remain hostage to behaviors that, when properly medicated, could be controlled. So at a very early age I chose to find a life with less maternal involvement because it so often caused stress and chaos.

      Some moms (and dads) are incredibly supportive and nurturing. Some are not. In the latter case, deciding what, when and how to help them “in return” becomes a challenge others cannot begin to imagine — because they could not imagine a life with so little parental backup (let alone how “parentified” many kids were already, without wishing for it) in the first place.

      No one has the right to judge another without fully knowing the situation, and maybe not even then. Judging others is a mug’s game.

  9. To Mary: Are we reading the same blog post? You wrote:

    “And to parenthetically rat her out for “being divorced/having few friends” sounds off-handedly and needlessly cruel.”

    I read a simple statement. It hardly seems to be ratting our her mother. How do you know this is not a well-known fact among her friends and others? And as people age and their friends die, they naturally have fewer friends and sometimes even few friends. These two things are hardly judgmental but merely life circumstances.

    In my opinion, this post is about the title: Those that are “nice” enough to care for aging parents will suffer financially as a result of time put to caring rather than earning. It’s a fair argument and not a statement that is saying not to care.

  10. Part of the above comment got eliminated. Here’s a rewrite of part of the comments:

    I read a simple statement. Her mother is divorced and has few friends. Many people are divorced. This is a common enough situation in today’s world. It hardly seems to be ratting out her mother. How do you know this is not a well-known fact among her friends and others?

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