Five Smart Tips for Family Caregivers

grandmother being cared for - caregiversPicture this: You're a middle-aged worker, raising your kids and worried about your job and mortgage, and suddenly your 75-year-old mother breaks her hip. She needs your help to continue living independently, and of course you'll rise to the challenge. But at what cost to your own financial and emotional burdens? Welcome to the caregiver challenge of 2011.

According to AARP's report,Family Caregiving in the U.S, caregivers chip in an estimated $375 billion a year to help out a loved one financially. But the sputtering economy and tenuous employment picture have placed an added strain on family caregivers, both emotionally and financially, according to the report.

At least you're in good company. Approximately 29% of the U.S. adult population, or 65.7 million people, are caregivers. Alas, there is no safety in numbers, and just as the need is growing every year, the caregiver's role just keeps getting tougher."The most important challenge [caregivers] are facing is that times are tough all over, which directly impacts the caregiver's finances as well as their ability to assist those that they are caring for," Paul Gada, personal financial planning director at Allsup, which represents Social Security Disability Insurance applicants, told WalletPop.

Of course managing and chipping in for the expenses of a parent or relative who can no longer go it alone is no simple feat, and will differ based on you and your family's resources.

Also, the relationship between a caregiver and a care recipient can be a tricky one to navigate. "It can get very emotional when financial issues are involved," Gada says.

But knowing what you need to know to tackle the finances of a loved one -- as well as knowing the caregiver resources available--can help ease the burden. Gada weighs in with some tips.

1. Have 'the Conversation'

Nobody wants to talk about when they might not be able to take care of themselves, but it's important to have this conversation early.

First determine who will be your parents' designated caregiver. "Decide who that person is going to be, talk to Mom and Dad and then get them on board," Gada says.

2. Get Papers in Order

Identify your parents' most important documents and corral them into one place.

These include ongoing bills, mortgage payments, insurance papers, investments, annuities, and bank information.

"If you can get the organizational part done and get the mechanical things out of the way, the transition will be much easier," says Gada.

Waiting until a crisis to do so can lead to a situation where "you are dropped into a foreign household" scrambling for important documents while important obligations get neglected, Gada says. For example, "while you're trying to figure out what's going on, their mortgage payments [might be] missed, which immediately cripples their credit score and affects their ability to refinance," he says.

3. Gain the Power to Make Critical Decisions

It's not enough to have your parent's papers in order. You have to have to be able to access them.

"That means making sure the care recipient completes the forms for powers of attorney for healthcare and property concerns so that the caregiver can make decisions on behalf of the care recipient."

It's critical to ensure that the caregiver has access to everything from bank accounts and pension funds in order to make decisions--be it to sell a property or a car-- for example, if the situation calls for it, Gada says.

Again, this is a conversation you should have while your parent is still able to have it.

If you haven't done the paper work that grants a caregiver healthcare power of attorney, when a medical issue arises and your parent is not in a condition to make their own decisions, there's no one acting as his/her healthcare advocate, Gada says.

4. Tap Assistance Programs

What if your parent or parents (or sibling) are short on resources? What if they have no retirement, or didn't build a nest egg, or fell on hard times? Are you able to step up and fill the gap financially?

Not necessarily. Help, and lots of it, is out there. Seek it out, says Gada. Start with, a website that will help you find which, if any, government benefits your relative might qualify for.

While some of these programs are needs and income based, there are others, such as food pantries, that anybody can partake in, he says.

If you'd rather talk to a live person for guidance, call 211 -- a kind of national social-service hotline -- to connect with a chapter of The United Way for free counseling on a myriad of resources in given areas.

Allsup also offers a list of vetted resources in your area.

5. Weigh the Costs and Benefits of Hiring Experts

Figuring out a long-term plan for care of your relative can be daunting. Does it make sense for you to hire outside, professional help?

Weigh the costs against the benefits of hiring experts such as a tax attorney to help you draft powers of attorney or to set up a special trust for the care recipient; an elder-law attorney to review and discuss your situation if your loved one is facing high long term care costs; and a healthcare benefits expert.

People often make very crucial decisions, such as picking the right Medicare plan, based on lack of knowledge, Gada says.

For example, an Allsup client was paying $900 a month for her Medigap plan. Allsup switched her over to Medicare Advantage for $125 a month, Gada says.
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