“I don’t actually care about money,” April said, blowing gently on her cup of tea so that she could take a sip before finishing her thought, “I just care about not having money.”
She shared this seemingly-contradictory but all-too-understandable emotion during a group discussion about taking care of her elderly mother. April’s father had died of a heart attack nearly 20 years ago, when April was in her teens, and her mother’s health had just begun to decline within the last few years.
April was married and worked part-time, and as such, became a primary caregiver for her mother. Her two siblings pitched in when they could, but they weren’t able to contribute significant amounts of time or financial help. Needless to say, this caused stress. April hated worrying about money when worrying about her mom, but those concerns crept up in her mind like English Ivy, snaking around every thought.
That’s a problem for many people when they are discussing how to financially care for an older loved one. There is a lot to take into account, from expenses to potential tax benefits. These conversations can be stressful and potentially explosive, especially if there is already tension or any lingering conflict between siblings.
Money dynamics and family dynamics are often extremely tricky. When you mix in the emotional strain of seeing a loved one struggle, it can be particularly brutal.
It doesn’t have to be, though. There are positive and productive ways to discuss finances with family members when acting as a caregiver for an older loved one. You just have to be honest, clear, and assume good faith where it is warranted. If you do that, you can take away a source of stress and tension and allow everyone to enjoy their precious time together.
Types of Financial Tension and How to Resolve Them
There is no one type of disagreement over money. There are many reasons families might have trouble seeing eye-to-eye, including:
Type and Expense of Care
When families are discussing how to take care of an older loved one (or loved ones) they are of course concerned about how to pay for things. There aren’t many people who can say, “Never mind the cost!” because, in real life, most of us have to mind the cost.
That can be a problem if different siblings have different ideas about what to do based on expenses. For example, some might think that a home health aide is too expensive, while others think that it will save money. These are real debates, and they don’t mean someone is trying to shirk responsibilities. Disagreeing about what type of care is needed and how much should be spent on that care is part of the process.
How to solve it: These types of debates aren’t like someone suggesting you eat dinner at McDonald’s just to be cheap. They are long-term life-changing decisions, so assume good faith when someone disagrees with you. Gather as many facts as possible and encourage everyone to do their research in order to determine what is in the best interest of your aging loved one. Don’t just go with your gut feelings.
Inequality of Means
April and her husband weren’t rich, but they had significantly more money than either of her siblings, even with April just working part-time. Her two brothers had jobs where they worked hard (one of them had two jobs), but had little money and less time.
We’ve talked about how some siblings can balance money with time (that is, if you don’t have time, help with money, and vice-versa). But even that isn’t always possible. One of April’s brothers didn’t even have a car; getting to his mom’s house across the Bay could take hours. So they really didn’t have much to give.
How to solve it: Figure out what resources you have and find creative ways to use them. For instance, one of April’s brothers was, well, not exactly a cook, but knew how to make food. April would transfer money to him each week, and he’d go grocery shopping and make some casseroles, as well as pick up things his mom needed. Every Sunday, April would pick up the meals and shopping from her brother and bring it to their mom. The system allowed him to help in a way that worked for him without having to spend hours getting across the Bay. It also eased April’s burden and made her less resentful about shouldering the bulk of the expenses.
Like April, you and your family should take into consideration everyone’s burdens, their opportunities, and what each can reasonably be expected to do. With this information, you can pool resources, with everyone contributing according to their means. Things don’t have to be equal, they just had to be equitable.
Tax Incentives and Bonuses
As we discussed in our article on tax deduction for caregivers, you are entitled to many exemptions and deductions if you pay 50% of more of your dependent’s expenses. And the best part is that one individual doesn’t even have to pay all 50%! Many people can pay into that…but, of course, only one person can claim a dependent. Everyone else has to sign a waiver.
This can create conflict. Imagine a scenario in which two siblings each pay 25%. Or where one sibling pays extra, but their parent lives with the other. The one who had their parent move in has a more direct claim to dependency, but then she also gets the tax benefits even though she pays less. Or if there is one sibling paying 30% and the other two paying 35% each, should the one get all the benefits?
How to solve it: The most important aspect here is communicating and perhaps getting professional accounting help. While it is true that one person will get the benefits, it is still possible—and even easy—to be fair. Calculate what each person is paying and split the benefits according to what each person contributes. Or agree to split deductions evenly if that is what makes everyone happy. Plan it out.
Now, the problem, of course, is that not every family trusts each other. There may need to be lawyers and contracts involved. While that is a potential solution, it’s best to try to resolve conflict with trust, communication, and love.
Understand That Your Emotions Are True
Anger. Resentment. Frustration. Guilt.
These are some of the primary emotions that often come with discussing finances, and the last one, guilt, is the most insidious. We feel guilty because it feels dirty and distasteful to think about money when a loved one is sick, struggling, even fading into the sunset. It feels tacky.
But it isn’t. Your finances are real, your life is real, and your emotions are real. Especially in the Bay Area, where living expenses are so high, you have every right to be worried about how you’re going to pay your mortgage or save for the future. For most of us, not worrying about these things would be irresponsible.
But you should also understand that other people are feeling the same way, and they aren’t wrong to do so either. They have their own concerns, and even if you think they are being irrational—even if you know that they are—in their minds, they aren’t. In their minds, they are worried, just like you.
Remember that their minds are just as clouded with grief and with guilt as yours. They are weighted with confusion and sorrow, with dreadful anticipation of the unknown.
The best advice we can give is to understand that everyone is going through hard times. Everyone is struggling to adjust to the rhythms of their new normalcy. With patience, understanding, empathy, rationality, facts, and the knowledge that you all want to do what is right for the older adults in your life, you can come to an arrangement based on fairness and love.
And that, we promise, is worth every penny.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Learn more about our Personal Financial Management Services, or connect with us today to learn more.