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Caring for and protecting elderly parents

Maybe you’re not caring for elderly parents now, but you might be soon. Forty-one percent of baby boomers who have a living parent are helping take care of them with personal help, financial assistance, or both. Members Barb Kasten and Mary Dobbe are among them.

Fall 2011 your$ magazineDick Kasten is at the window watching the lawn crew mow the grass surrounding his first floor condo in Menomonee Falls. It’s a beautiful setting. The living room windows look out at a well tended garden bed with a backdrop of undeveloped prairie and woods.

The condo is home to Dick and his daughter Barb. Barb is among the 41% of baby boomers who provide assistance to aging parents. She is also among the 8% who have a parent living with them (USA Today/ABC News/Gallup Poll).

As the last baby boomers reach the age of 50, it is expected that this group of Americans will spend more years caring for elderly parents than they spend raising their own children.

With advances in medicine, individuals are living longer than ever before. The largest growing age group in the U.S. is people in their 80s. The fortunate increase in longevity comes with some consequences. It means planning for more years in retirement, and that’s going to require more savings. It also means your chances of having or being an elderly parent that needs some assistance is pretty high.

Michelle Slawny, Sr. Financial Planner from WEA Member Benefits, says about half of the Wisconsin public school employees she creates plans for are helping their parents in some way. “It’s a challenge. Trying to save for retirement, getting children launched, and caring for their parents.”

Michelle emphasizes the importance of not compromising your own financial security. “Utilize other resources to pay for college and help your parents. If you jeopardize your own finances now, you risk putting yourself and your children in a tough spot down the road.”

The turning point

Dick is sharp. Despite some difficulty getting around, he looks great at 90 years old. And, he thinks his current living situation is wonderful. “I’ve got it made,” he says. Barb explains that her dad came to live with her 10 years ago after her mother passed away. “It made sense economically, and I just knew that I would take care of him at some point, because I promised him that he would never go to a nursing home.”

Dick was living in their family home—a tri-level in Cudahy. Much larger than he needed and too far away. “After Mom was gone, I told him we had two years to get the house sold.”

Barb is single, which made it an easy decision, but she acknowledges some adjustments were required. “I hadn’t lived with anyone for years, so it took some getting used to. But he’s one of the easiest people to be around. He’s made me become a more ‘flexible’ person.”

“We have a beautiful relationship,” Dick says. You can sense how much he appreciates his daughter. “The most difficult part is communication—trying to understand each other. It’s not perfect, but it’s just been a beautiful relationship. I’m 90. If Barb wasn’t here, I’m not sure where I’d be.”

“It was an adjustment for both of us,” says Barb. She handles meals, finances, household chores, doctor’s appointments, medicine dispensing, and personal care. “Everything that makes him feel okay physically and emotionally.”

The retirement decision

Dick and Barb KastenUntil this year, Barb worked full time as a middle school counselor in the Waukesha school district. “I really loved it. I hadn’t planned to retire until I turned 60, but it just worked out that way.”

A couple years ago, Barb attended a financial seminar called Preparing for Retirement presented by Michelle Slawny. “After the seminar, I set up an appointment for a Retirement Income Analysis. I wanted to see where I was at financially. She showed me what I could expect if I retired at 58 and 60.”

Since then, a couple things transpired. “Dad had several surgeries last November and then with everything going on politically…I called Michelle to see if 58 was still an option.” Fortunately, Barb saved for retirement with a 403(b), which gives her an additional source of retirement income and helped her retire early.

Michelle suggests that with retirement benefits of all kinds being eliminated or reduced, public school employees will need to rely more heavily on their personal savings. “Anyone considering retirement before age 62 needs to make saving a priority if they want to achieve their financial goal.”

No regrets

“It was strange not going back to school this year. On teachers’ first day back, Dad had an appointment near Butler school. Afterward, I said, ‘Let’s drive by the school.’”

Barb seems surprised that she’s taken to retirement as well as she has. “It’s given me so much flexibility. I can do things in the evening with friends if I want. When I was working I rarely went out in the evenings. The days were so long for Dad.”

Knowing the difficulty others go through with finding care and managing everything from a distance, makes Barb feel lucky. “I’m very fortunate. I have friends who are dealing with very tough issues as they become more and more responsible for their elderly parents, like Alzheimers, independent vs. assisted living, and nursing home alternatives. These are very difficult/emotional issues.”

Getting your ducks in a row

Caring for your aging parents means helping them plan for their future, and this can be overwhelming. It’s a difficult subject to raise. But waiting until after the need becomes acute will only make important decisions more difficult.

“After Mom passed away, we sought help from an estate lawyer,” says Barb. They had his will drawn up, as well as a living will, power of attorney, and power of healthcare. “This not only gave us peace of mind but also avoids having his estate go into probate upon his death.”

Barb has also been realistic about planning ahead for herself. When she was in her early 40s, she took out a long-term care insurance policy. “Being single, I want to know that if I need assistance or nursing home care, I will have some choice in where I go and the type of care I receive.”

A strong partnership

Barb and Dick have been through a lot together. “I think of it as a partnership,” says Barb. Dick says again, “It’s not perfect, but it’s just been a beautiful relationship,” Barb chuckles as she tells how Dick still plays his parental role. “He’ll say ‘Barb, don’t stay up too late.’ I have to remind him I’m 58 years old. He’s a special person. He’s given me as much as I’ve given him, probably more.”


Barb KastenBarb Kasten was a special education teacher for eight years in Mequon. She received her master’s degree in counseling and worked at Homing and Butler Middle Schools in the Waukesha district for the next 25 years. “Middle school is such a pivotal time for kids. It was very rewarding to be part of that. And, I worked with really wonderful people.” 

Barb was among the 4,935 Wisconsin public school employees who retired this year. “The time was right for a number of reasons. And, financially I knew it was an option.”

She enjoys spending time with friends, exercising, reading, gardening, and going to movies.