In the months after my father had a stroke in 2001 at 71, his garbled speech was nearly as useless as his paralyzed right side. Sometimes, unable to find the words in English, he would lapse into German, the language he had taught to college students for 35 years. Often, he'd struggle to summon a familiar name to his lips. When he tried to say mine, what came out was "Dad."
That name couldn't be more apt. At 34, I'm both a father to two small children and full-time caregiver for my own father. That puts me squarely in the Sandwich Generation -- those who care for aging parents while raising their own children. Some 22.4 million U.S. households care for someone over 65. As baby boomers look ahead to old age, with the prospect of remaining there much longer than their parents and grandparents, those numbers are set to soar. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, 67% of Americans under 60 expect to care for an aged relative in the next 10 years, up from 25% who were caregivers in 1997.
Sadly, most of us are ill-prepared for the job. Most older Americans lack the means to finance care if they become disabled. Fewer still carry long-term-care insurance. That usually leaves adult children to pick up the pieces, often over long distances. My family is a perfect example. After my mother died in 1999, my dad lived alone and continued to work full-time in Charlotte, N.C., while I lived with my wife, Cristina, in Dallas, and my older brother resided outside Philadelphia. When my dad collapsed on his kitchen floor one Sunday, more than 24 hours passed before a neighbor found him.
In the harrowing days that followed, my brother and I tried to tally the options available to us, and they seemed few. We were both living far away and in no position to move. Born in Scotland and an only child, my father had no extended family in the U.S. We had no knowledge of the vast landscape of nursing homes and care facilities that could house him and hated the idea of moving him into an institutional setting. Besides, his finances had long been structured to provide for a stable retirement, not sudden disability.
I've since found numerous resources to help adult children care for elderly parents and cope with the stress. But we had to wing it, a skill our dad had taught us years before. Four months after his stroke, he nervously boarded a plane with me to Dallas, where he would live in an assisted living center that offered full-time personal care. Several months later, we took the first offer we got for my dad's house to free up cash, storing much of the contents, including thousands of books and file cabinets of old letters.
It turns out these were just the first steps. My dad rehabilitated swiftly, re-learning to bathe and dress, ditching his wheelchair for a cane, and augmenting his speech with hand gestures. But with his recovery came a desire to return home. While my brother and I knew he would never enjoy the independence he had before his stroke, I started to think a move back to the place where he had spent most of his adult life made sense. We had many friends in Charlotte who could act as a support system for him and for us. Our familiarity with the city, coupled with its less hectic pace, would make juggling his care with our own responsibilities easier. So in 2003, my bosses at BusinessWeek let me relocate from Dallas and telecommute from a home office.
Of course, it wasn't as easy as we had hoped. We wanted my dad to live with us, to make care easier and save money. But we also wanted the privacy of separate quarters. Suitable houses were scarce, and the cost of building one was out of reach. Once we found one, we had to sink $3,000 into a chair lift for the steep outdoor stairs. Cristina had her own hill to climb, graciously sharing in our new responsibilities even as she was adjusting to life as a stay-at-home mom.
Other challenges were more mundane. Keeping him fed, his clothes clean, and his medications filled added complication, as did driving him to doctors and therapists. I came to rely on the Red Cross and other groups that offer free rides for senior citizens, and discovered a nearby senior center where he could exercise and eat lunch. My dad learned to make breakfast and administer his drugs. When my wife and I go out of town, we enlist a nursing service that sends aides to cook his meals.
None of this was rocket science, but adding an adult with special needs to a busy household is arduous. Not surprisingly, caregivers are at higher risks of depression, sickness, and financial instability, and two-thirds have to cut back their hours at work or take unpaid leave to maintain their multiple roles.
Still, I would never trade the past three years. It might be because I spent my adolescence watching my parents care for my grandmother the same way. Maybe it's the bond that has grown between my dad and my 2-year-old son, or that my dad and I have spent more time together in the past year than at any time since I left for college in 1989.
This month, we'll celebrate his 75th birthday. While his speech is much better, he still calls me Dad on occasion. I'm not sure why, but I never correct him.
By Andrew Park