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The Hidden Costs of Family Caregiving

Danny Szlauderbach
By Danny SzlauderbachJuly 9, 2020
Elderly woman and her daughter caregiver sitting on a bench in the park.

When a parent or aging relative begins to need help with daily activities, you may decide to take on caregiving responsibilities. At first, it may seem natural, convenient, and logical to care for a parent on your own. But family caregiving can become overwhelming quickly, both emotionally and financially.

Family caregivers spend about 20% of their income on caregiver costs, according to a 2020 report by AARP. Before you choose to be a family member’s primary caregiver, it’s important to understand the financial realities of caring for a parent — especially the unexpected caregiver costs.

6 caregiver costs you may be unaware of

Family caregiving often begins with a sense of duty and love. Your commitment to your elderly parent or family member is admirable and shouldn’t be minimized, but remembering to value your own needs is essential.

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“Caregivers sacrifice their own lives for a loved one,” says Donna Talerico, a Senior Living Advisor with A Place for Mom who cared for her elderly mother. “Some postpone medical appointments and procedures for themselves, and some stop going out because they either can’t leave or their loved one is fearful they may not come back. They stay put to reduce risk.”

Here are six hidden costs of caregiving that may help you prepare for your new role and find a healthy balance.

1. Lost income

Family caregivers frequently have to leave their jobs, reduce their work hours, or retire early. About half of working family caregivers report a negative effect on their careers, according to an survey. This includes going into work early, leaving late, and taking extended time off, which usually leads to lost income.

Some other work-related consequences of caregiving include:

  • Lost benefits like health insurance and retirement savings
  • Fewer opportunities for promotion
  • Decreased job security

2. Decreased employability

“Caregivers who leave work or lose a job or career to care for a loved one may find it hard to reenter the work force when they can again,” Talerico says. High unemployment heightens this challenge.

Plus, as more and more baby boomers age into retirement and need help from family members, the demands of caregiving lead to even less employment across the workforce.

3. Increased personal health care costs

Family caregivers often experience increased physical and emotional strains as a result of caregiving, according to the AARP report. Many caregivers say they feel alone, and about 40% report caregiving is highly stressful.

These unforeseen health effects of caregiving are damaging on their own, but they can translate into costs if caregivers need to seek additional medical help as a result of physical and emotional strains related to caregiving. For caregivers who lost their health insurance because they lost their job or put their career on hold, these new medical expenses are particularly hard to bear.

4. Lost savings and retirement

Increased out-of-pocket expenses for caregivers can add up quickly. These include basic living expenses like:

  • Meals
  • Utility bills
  • Medical supplies
  • Personal care items such as clothing or bathroom supplies
  • Transportation-related costs like gas and new tires
  • Activities and entertainment

Extra costs cause caregivers to dip into savings. Twenty-two percent of caregivers report using all their short-term savings, while 12% say they went through all their long-term savings, according to the AARP report.

Some effects of increased costs for caregivers include:

  • Having to borrowing money from family or friends
  • Leaving bills unpaid or increasing credit card debt
  • Selling possessions
  • Needing to move to a smaller home or apartment
  • Eviction

Naturally, caregivers who’ve stopped working altogether have an even harder time maintaining their savings and retirement funds. Leaving the workforce can also reduce your social security benefit.

5. Home modifications

Home safety and accessibility are major concerns if a parent moves in with a family caregiver. A caregiver’s home needs to be senior friendly to prevent injuries, reduce fall risks, and ensure independence. While these home improvement projects may be expensive, preventing injuries could save thousands of dollars in medical costs.

Home modifications may include:

  • Chair lifts
  • Grab bars
  • Alarm systems
  • Shower benches
  • Wheelchair ramps
  • Safety locks on doors
  • Inspections for fire hazards
  • Technology like alert devices and GPS tracking

6. Strained relationships

As family caregivers devote more of their time and energy to caring for their loved one, they may begin to feel frustrated — especially if they experience any of the unexpected costs described above.

“Some caregivers have feelings of anger, resentment, and then guilt in having those feelings toward the very loved one they care for,” Talerico says. “They may have similar feelings toward siblings not pitching in but giving lots of directives from afar.”

Family disputes around caregiving are common. A well-planned family meeting or hiring a mediator are two ways to work toward resolving them. 

Extra costs cause caregivers to dip into savings. Twenty-two percent of caregivers report using all their short-term savings, while 12% say they went through all their long-term savings, according to the AARP report.

Another way to look at family caregiver costs

While these lesser-known expenses may make family caregiving seem daunting, helping a loved one in their time of need can be rewarding as well. About half of family caregivers say they feel a new sense of purpose and meaning, according to the AARP study.

“A cost can be a good thing too,” Talerico says. “It’s what you sacrificed to help someone you love, and it’s doing the best you can with what you have and not having regrets.”

Extra time spent with an aging loved one is invaluable. The bonding opportunity created by family caregiving — both for children and grandchildren — is a benefit of caring for a parent at home.

Ways to reduce family caregiver costs

New technology, like home alert systems and GPS tracking devices, may help prevent injuries and stress. Smartphones and tablets also allow seniors to stay occupied, connect with friends and family, and communicate with doctors without requiring transportation.

Beyond these changes at home, some state governments have passed laws supporting family caregivers. This includes an income tax credit for caregivers, a payment program for caregivers, and paid leave of absences from work. Along with Washington D.C., these states have laws that provide some form of paid family leave:

Preparation is perhaps the most important way to offset the less obvious costs of family caregiving. By tackling this potential obstacle early and knowing what you’re up against, you’ll increase your chances of providing affordable, worthwhile care to your loved one.

Danny Szlauderbach
Danny Szlauderbach

Danny Szlauderbach is an editor and content writer at A Place for Mom. Since 2010, his work in strategic communications has spanned across several industries, including education, technology, and financial services. He’s a member of ACES: The Society for Editing and a graduate of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.

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