Who Will Help Those Who Don’t Have Children?

My husband and I did not have kids. Our siblings all have children. We have saved and expect to be comfortable in our retirement. I am presently retired and my husband will retire in about 2 years. We look forward to traveling and enjoying life. We recently met a similar couple who asked what our plans were as we got older. Who do you trust to help with finances, etc should that become necessary? We are close to our relatives but they do not live near. We cannot imagine moving closer to them. So being in our early 60s we are starting to wonder and want to investigate various alternatives. We were a help to my mother when she got older and we are involved with my husband’s mother but we don’t have a son or daughter to assume that roll. Not that that is an assumption everyone can make even if they have children. So I’m wondering if you might write something about this topic. Much obliged.

From “Child Free”

Dear Child Free……this is Cliff.

Lucky are those who have adult offspring who want to help their parents, are in a position to do so and don’t consider it a burden. But you’re right, even if you have children you can’t count on them to be able to help you when you need help in old age. Your grown children may be overwhelmed with their own families and lives. They may live far away. They may have disabilities of their own. Or you may not want their help. Many people fear having to be dependent on their children for support and care in old age. It’s easy to feel like you’re a burden to someone even when that person wants to help. And of course, these days, it’s increasingly common to not have any family nearby, as is the case with you and your husband.

If you live long enough, you will need help though. If you’re wealthy, you can buy help. If you’re poor, Medicaid (“Mainecare” in Maine) may offer limited help at home or more substantial help in a congregate care setting such as assisted living or nursing facilities. If you’re somewhere in the middle, as most people are, you may have to “spend down”……purchase services to help you stay at home until such time as you qualify for Mainecare. That is the path most people take.

But you’re right in thinking about alternatives to either family or poverty. There are retirement homes and communities that offer nice surroundings, modest cost and may offer just enough help. Other options? Many types of informal care arrangements work for people. For example, renting a spare bedroom to the right person may bring you both companionship and assistance in exchange for reduced or no rent. This arrangement may allow you to stay in your own home. “Naturally occurring retirement communities” are getting increased attention and may prove to be especially popular with baby-boomers. These are groups of people, either friends or neighbors, who choose to live in close proximity (either in the same large house, apartment building or neighborhood) and offer mutual assistance. Another innovation is the multi-generational commune, in which retired people offer child care, cooking and help with chores up to their abilities. These communities have different arrangements. Individuals and families may have their own small houses or there may be a large house, but the result is an integrated, intergenerational community that “takes care of its own”. This arrangement is not for everyone, and problems can develop as in any large family arrangement. They also require a lot of planning and hard work to maintain compatibility. Like a marriage, these arrangements work best with people who are flexible, good communicators and willing to give up some privacy and autonomy.

As for finances, legal and medical decision-making, in the absence of a trusted family member or friend you may have to rely on a professional. Geriatric case managers can be hired for an hourly fee. They will provide transportation to doctor’s appointments, provide advocacy, offer advice, help complete and organize paperwork, hire qualified in home aides, and do all the little things that make a big difference.

This is a great topic for lively discussion. Thanks for bringing it up. It’s a good time to start this discussion with your husband and friends. Good luck. Send us a photo of the house you buy for your aging in place commune!

Dear Child Free……this is Len.

So, who ever said that children had the market cornered on providing help to those who need it? Not I. Although children, and daughters in particular, are the most common helpers of older or disabled relatives, spouses and partners rise to the occasion time and time again – including husbands! And, contrary to popular belief, a caring husband is not an oxymoron. In fact, about 40% (that’s right!) of caregiving in families is provided by men. Plus, there are numerous others or what are called “informal natural supports” in people’s lives that also can be expected to rise to the occasion more than most people think and lend a helping hand. I’m referring to relatives other than children and your spouse or partner, including relatives, friends, and neighbors in your lives. I also firmly believe that living in Maine is a factor that works in your favor. There is a Maine tradition, similar to the tradition found in other less densely populated states with lots of small towns and rural communities, of caring for our own and showing considerable community spirit and concern when our fellow neighbors are in need.

As for the fact that you don’t live near to relatives that you are close to: now-a-days many families that maintain close relationships live far apart. Families that are separated geographically may not be able to provide continuous hands-on care to those in need, but they can still step up and make a big difference. Yes, it is a little more complicated, but these are people who can provide a great deal of social and emotional support via the telephone, Skype, and e-mail. They can also offer a break to whoever may be providing the lion’s share of help for you when they do come and visit. That kind of help is called respite care and it is important to provide temporary breaks to keep those who are providing the majority of assistance from getting exhausted and burning out. “Long distance” caregivers can also help with financial planning if you trust them and that is needed as well as assist in arranging for and coordinating the local services that you might need from community agencies and programs. Believe it or not, there are more than seven million long distance caregivers in the U.S. who live more than an hour away from those they help on a regular basis.

Cliff has offered you a lot to chew on when it comes to options, choices, and alternatives that you might want to consider. We should all do ourselves a favor and plan for our futures – playing out various scenarios in our minds is a very worthwhile exercise and thinking about how we might handle things should we become incapacitated can be very helpful and, by the way, extremely comforting. So, take his advice and sit down with your husband and develop a game plan for the next phase of your lives – a period of time that could constitute as much as a third of your life! It sounds like you have already done that financially, now do it in terms of your social, emotional, and health care needs.

Good luck!

Len Kaye

About Len Kaye

Dr. Lenard W. Kaye is Professor of Social Work at the University of Maine School of Social Work and Director of the UMaine Center on Aging.