Last Updated: August 9, 2010
Each day, millions of Americans discover an aging relative or friend needs help. It can mean planning for more services and assistance to get them through their daily lives or it can mean dealing with a sudden and serious health crisis.
The costs of each stage of care for elders can be shockingly high. And if individuals have time to consider their options before a relative needs those options, all the better — a chance to plan is a chance to spend and save smarter.
So many parents face a weighty triangle of expenses in middle age — college tuition for the kids, eldercare costs for parents and other relatives and of course, the responsibility of saving for retirement. A good first stop is with a tax adviser and a financial planning professional. A financial planner can give you an overview of how you stand financially in these three key areas so you can make plans going forward.
Here are some general ideas to consider in managing the costs of caring for an elder:
- Start by evaluating the senior's finances: If you have time and a good rapport with the senior, you have a valuable opportunity to settle a lot of important details. If there's not a pending emergency, it's a good idea to schedule a family meeting between you, your spouse and the elderly relative to make sure you understand what assets they have and how they want those assets applied to their long-term care. And even if an elderly relative is older but in relatively good health, it might make sense to check the cost of long-term care insurance as a backstop to their savings. The premiums will definitely cost more — sometimes considerably more — than the average 50-year-old would pay, but depending on the relative's situation, such a move might make sense.
- Make sure key documents are in place: It's also important that you ensure that the elderly relative has critical documents in place such as a current will, relevant legal and health powers of attorney and any written instructions relevant to their care, funeral wishes and other property issues. All that information should be stored in an agreed-upon place that all key decision-makers can get to easily.
- Start researching care options now: In every community there are guides to various community programs, assisted living centers and nursing homes. These are generally good places to start gathering possible locations and services you'll need and to start comparing costs. The worst time to gather this information is after a relative suffers a stroke or other debilitating illness that requires an immediate decision. It might be best to work with the elderly relative in selecting these services if they're willing to do visits and compare features. It might make sense to hire the services of a certified geriatric care manager to help you assess proper care options. Be sure to review insurance options to make sure those services are paid for.
- Make sure the care option fits the stage of health as well as the budget: Home health aides obviously allow a relative to stay in the home and have company when traveling outside, but adult day care can be a cheaper option. Also, part-time caretakers can handle key tasks and supervision as needed — keep in mind that responsible college students need money more than ever and can help with grocery shopping, cleaning, meal preparation and supervision on health issues that medical personnel don't always need to be present for.
- Once the clock starts, be prepared to negotiate: Remember that various assisted living and nursing facilities have turnover and that if a center isn't full to capacity there might be wiggle room on rates and fees. Also, key cost drivers can be basic items you never think about — tissues, toiletries, wipes, adult diapers, laundry service and other support items that residents use in these facilities either individually or with help. Buying or supplying these items outside the facility may save considerable dollars.
- Consider shared rooms if money is tight: Private rooms are expensive in any setting, and it always makes sense to check the shared-room option in a facility as a way to save money. Of course, make sure the rooms are acceptable to the family member.