Becoming 'parent of your parent' an emotionally wrenching process

First you get phone calls that seem kind of strange. Mom is quitting her bridge club because "they think I'm stealing from them."

A week later, she mentions an old boyfriend from the war who's coming to take her to dinner. You think, OK, it could be true.

Then the police call from her house. "Your mom thinks there's someone hiding under her bed."

Now you know. The forgetfulness, the fantasies, are dementia, Alzheimer's, something like that. Your sister suspects the worst.

This isn't just the story of one petite brunette wtih terrific legs who was called "Shorty" by her husband, granddaughters and daughters, including me.

This is the story of millions of Americans caring for elderly parents and maneuvering in the murky worlds of medicine, law, hospitals, nursing homes, guilt, fear and family ties.

A USA TODAY/ABC News/Gallup Poll of baby boomers finds that 41% who have a living parent are providing care for them — either financial help, personal care or both — and 8% of boomers say their parents have moved in with them.

Of those who are not caring for an aging parent, 37% say they expect to do so in the future. About half say they're concerned about being able to provide such care.

It's estimated that 34 million Americans serve as unpaid caregivers for other adults, usually elderly relatives, and that they spend an average 21 hours a week helping out, according to a study being released today by AARP. Millions more grown children are calling regularly, flying into town every few weeks or months or just stopping by to take Mom or Dad to the doctor.

Among boomers who are helping their parents, 89% say the responsibility is only a "minor sacrifice" or "no sacrifice at all," according to the USA TODAY poll. But as their elderly parents get older, some boomers are beginning to worry they won't be able to care for them in the future.

AARP estimates that the economic impact of this "free" care was about $350 billion in 2006. That's more than the U.S. government spent on Medicare in 2005. It exceeded the size of the federal budget deficit in 2006.

AARP estimates that unpaid caregivers who contribute financially spend an average of $2,400 a year on care. Those who put in more than 40 hours a week spend much more: an average of $3,888 of their own money each year, AARP says. But when a parent actually moves into the children's home, the total cost isn't really added up. Families pay and pay and pay, emotionally and financially.

The typical unpaid caregiver is a 46-year-old woman who works outside the home while taking care of a relative, according to AARP. That burden forces her to cut the hours she works at her regular job by about 41%, causing her salary and benefits to fall sharply.

The National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) estimates that $659,000 per person is lost in pensions, Social Security benefits and wages as adult children — mainly women — take time off from work to care for their parents.

The physical toll can be severe, too. Caregivers report having one or more chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, at nearly twice the rate of all Americans. Of those who say their health has worsened because of caregiving, 91% report depression.

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