As parents age and need more assistance, most adult children do what they can to help. For many, the first step is a weekly stop by Mom and Dad’s home to assess the situation and perhaps help with some chores and errands. Often, these check-ins increase in frequency until it becomes a routine part of each day.
Family caregivers typically look into community services and in-home care for assistance. They research adult day care centers and assisted living communities. However, most seniors are adamant about wanting to remain in their own homes and receive assistance from their own children. They don’t want “strangers” in their house or driving them to engagements.
Sick days and paid time off begin to dwindle. Performance suffers and unpaid leave becomes the only option for taking time away from work to handle emergencies and doctor’s appointments. Eventually, like so many other family caregivers, you consider quitting your job, putting your career on hold. While it won’t be easy, it’ll just be a temporary solution, ideally with minimal impact. Right?
The Benefits of Leaving Work to Care for a Family Member
You already know what may be gained by giving up your job and becoming the primary full-time caregiver for your parents. You would benefit from knowing firsthand how they are faring day and night. You could save them from paying for in-home care or adult day care. You wouldn’t have to worry about the quality of care they are receiving from outside sources. You could likely delay, if not eliminate, their need for nursing home care. You may be able to deepen your relationship with your parents and grow closer to them.
Keep in mind that every family is unique. For some, these benefits are realistic yet short-lived. For others, these benefits are simply unattainable ideals. Caregiver burnout, financial strain and changes in health and relationships can severely undermine even the best laid care plans.
The Costs of Quitting a Job for Caregiving
While the benefits seem straightforward enough, the true costs of deciding to quit your job to care for Mom or Dad are much more complex.
A deficit in or loss of monthly income is likely the biggest factor in this decision, and that change can usually be tolerated on a temporary basis. However, caregiving can drag on for months and even years. Many caregivers do not think about the long-term effects of this choice, but it’s crucial not to forget about or ignore your own financial future.
Yes, stepping in to help your aging parents may feel good and help them save money. If they have significant assets and don’t outlive their savings, you may even recoup some of the financial resources you gave up by inheriting part of their estate when they die. But, my best advice to family caregivers is never to rely on that outcome.
It is highly likely that your parents will still need care in a senior living facility at some point, regardless of whether you embrace unemployment to personally spearhead their care. When the time comes for placement in long-term care, their financial resources will dwindle quickly unless they are fortunate to have a very good long-term care insurance policy or abundant savings. Therefore, assuming that you will financially recover after “it’s all over” is very risky. Even if a personal care agreement is put in place very early on to compensate you for your services, there is still no guarantee that your parents’ funds will see them through.
Obviously, this decision involves giving up a paycheck for a certain amount of time, but that’s not the only thing that’s on the line. Consider the following implications that may not initially occur to family caregivers who are contemplating quitting their jobs.
- Social Security Benefits: Even though family caregivers work very long, hard hours, these work hours do not show up on one’s Social Security record. Depending on the number of years you spend officially unemployed, you not only lose your take-home wages, but you also lose the opportunity to work toward earning hundreds of dollars a month in Social Security retirement benefits.
- Retirement Savings Plans: Without a job, you’ll miss out on the ability to participate in an employer’s retirement plan or 401(k) match. Unless you had a healthy retirement plan before you quit your job, your financial future is likely to be bleak. In fact, most family caregivers who give up their jobs end up withdrawing funds from their savings and retirement accounts prematurely to offset their lost income and cover monthly expenses.
- Job skills: As other colleagues in your field move up and gain experience, your skills are likely to wane during your unemployment. Countless people have left the workforce and been unpleasantly surprised to find that new educational requirements, technological expertise and training are now required for jobs similar to the ones they held before.
- Re-entering the Workforce: It’s easier to get a new job when you already have one, compared to job hunting while unemployed. In today’s tight job market, re-entering the workforce may not be easy, especially with a significant gap in employment on your resume.
- Ageism: As your parents age and you care for them, you, too, are growing older. Age discrimination is illegal, but when you’re finally able to work again, potential employers can find other ostensible reasons for not hiring you, such as out-of-date skills.
- Caregiver Isolation: Not everyone is cut out to be a full-time caregiver. You may find that, while you are glad not to be juggling a job and caregiving responsibilities, you miss the work atmosphere, your paycheck and the social interaction you had as an employed person. Caregiving can be a profoundly lonely job.
As with all issues in caregiving, there is no black and white answer. For some, leaving work for caregiving is the only right thing to do. For others, it can lead to financial ruin and a lost sense of purpose and identity outside of providing care. As a nation, we need more affordable elder care resources and better support from employers so that gainful employment, financial security and dedication to family are attainable goals that can coexist. Until more options are made available to Americans, adult children who wish to care for their aging parents will continue facing heartbreakingly difficult decisions like this one.