When your home is no longer a castle

(Part 1)

It is human nature to complain. Especially for a “chronic kvetch” like me.

When caring for my mother long distance, it seemed obvious to me that the best way my late father could have spent his money was to secure (ahead of time) long-term-care insurance so she could stay in her home. It would have been impossible to keep her there with 24/7 home health aides without it.

But shortly after she passed away, another reality hit me—that the money spent on long-term-care could not also be spent on purchasing their apartment.

The apartment was nothing special, yet it was everything special. It had two bedrooms and two baths, and a copious amount of closets uncommon in newer dwellings. It also had a terrace—which made Manhattanites feel they had more space than they actually did. But my father had obtained permission—the first and only tenant in the building to do so—to make room for more shelves and books.

It was a doorman building. Nothing elegant, but well maintained. In fact, whenever the management made an attempt to prettify the lobby, at least several people would complain that the rent was likely to go up and that the efforts didn’t suit. Every holiday season a hanukkiah, and a Christmas tree adorned the lobby, and extra lights. Requests for repairs were mostly fulfilled quickly, though not always by fluent English speakers. The elevators were rarely out, and came quickly.

Above all, the apartment was about location, location, location. Much to my initial despair, my parents left their Brooklyn apartment to move to Manhattan so my father could be closer to work—in fact, he gave up his car and walked there. The Upper East Side apartment was close to all kinds of shopping, synagogues, and train stations (even the genesis of the long-awaited Second Avenue subway). It was like six avenue blocks from Museum Mile, and the same distance from entrances to Central Park. And there was another smaller park, near the Mayor’s mansion and the East River.

Considering Manhattan to have been a fine place to visit but kind of “scary” to live in, I was at first very unhappy about the move. But within six months, I was sold, and Brooklyn began to be “foreign territory.”

So what could be bad? On top of all those attractions, the rent was amazing. No one could believe an Upper East Side apartment could be had for so little. And by the time my parents became “senior citizens” officially (though to me they remained young for many more years), the building had turned coop. But they could not be forced to buy. Had they bought, the rent would have gone up considerably…

And then my father, and later my mother, passed away. Suddenly it occurred to me that the apartment they had occupied for 44 years wasn’t going to be theirs anymore. I would have been able to hold onto the apartment had it been my primary residence—but that would have meant getting my mail there and voting there and having a driver’s license there, when I lived 180 miles away in Harrisburg, Pa.

The most the management would do was honor my mother’s lease, which had about a year and a half to go. We could keep furniture in the apartment, but we couldn’t stay overnight or allow an auctioneer to sell things off unless a family member was there. That would have meant doing a lot more traveling back and forth and losing more time on my work—as I had done for the three years of my mother’s illness. Besides, paying rent on a lease that would end in the apartment being sold at a price nowhere near affordable was only postponing the inevitable.

Caregiving: Finances

If there’s probably one aspect of caregiving that people are probably most reluctant to talk about–and, I might add, where sharing information doesn’t necessarily help, because everyone’s situation is so different–it’s finances. The one generality I can make is that taking care of a loved one’s needs, especially late in life, when physical and mental deficits are more likely, will almost always cost more than you think it will.

I consider myself lucky: my father had purchased long-term-care insurance at a time when few people were doing that. Someone in the social service organization he worked for most of his career had recommended it. I was also lucky that my parents were relatively healthy most of their lives and had good health care insurance, then Medicare and AARP. My mother never used up the benefits of the long-term-care insurance, either. It wasn’t necessary for her to get Medicaid, though there is no shame in that either. It’s something many middle-class people might feel funny about, but sometimes there’s no choice.

We were also given good advice: to set up a Trust Fund that would meet the five-year lookback law in case my mother outlived the long-term-care insurance, and it was necessary to put her in a nursing home. It’s a terrible thing to contemplate any of these possibilities, but more and more people are facing them every day–and as America grays, more and more are likely to.

Finance was never one of my strong suits, but luckily, there are experts out there. In building a network to help you care for your loved one, include accountants, elder lawyers, investment counselors, bankers, people who know. I was lucky that my parents knew and had relationships with competent people in each of the categories except elder law. They were also people not out to gouge. If you don’t have those relationships, ask friends and family for recommendations. There are also many seminars out there on various aspects of aging and elder care. No one ever wants to think about finances when it comes to the people we love, but just as we make plans for our children, the day often comes when we need to do the same for our parents. It’s never too soon too think ahead.