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June 11, 2011

USA: Aging in America is Easier when You're Rich

PORTLAND, Maine / Yahoo! News / June 11, 2011

Barbara Bush Turns 86:
Aging in America is Easier when You're Rich

By Robert Clark Young , Yahoo! Contributor Network
Former first lady Barbara Bush celebrates her 86th birthday by reading to
young patients at The Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at the
Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine.
(AP Photo/The Portland Press Herald, Gabe Souza)

Barbara Bush turned 86 on June 8. She spent the day reading to 20 sick children at a hospital in Portland, Maine.

Bush is fortunate to be spry enough to fly between her homes in Texas and Maine. She's fortunate to be agile enough to do volunteer work. At her age, she's fortunate to still be a fully functioning person.

But there's another way Bush is fortunate: She's lucky her family is wealthy. Because when the time comes when she's no longer spry, agile, or mentally nimble, her family will have the resources to make sure she gets the best home nursing care available.

This isn't true for most of the 9 million seniors who have become so debilitated that their unpaid family members must now care for them. For these people and their families -- and the millions more who will soon be joining them due to our aging population -- elder care is a daily challenge that can strain emotions, family bonds and finances.

My life changed with one phone call in August 2008, when my 80-year-old mother suffered a stroke. I moved from Sacramento to San Diego to help my 81-year-old father care for her. Four months later, my father suffered a stroke, paralyzing him on the right side.

I was now responsible for caring for both my parents. Nothing in my previous experience as a college professor or writer had prepared me for this. Two and a half years later, I am still living in their home, caring for them every day.

All of this would be a lot easier if our family had the financial resources of the Bush family. Perversely, it would also be easier if our family were poor.

I learned this when I called In-Home Supportive Services, the California state agency that places caregivers in the homes of infirm seniors. This was my conversation with the caseworker:

"What is your parents' monthly income?"

I gave her the figure.

"I'm sorry, but they don't qualify. Their income is too high."

"But they're both disabled. Isn't there some way to get help?"

"Actually, I do know one thing people have tried. I wouldn't do it myself, but it might work for you."

"What is it?"

"They could get a divorce."

"A divorce?"

"Their individual incomes might be low enough if you split the amount by getting them divorced. Then they'd qualify for a caregiver."

I wasn't going to ask my parents to get a divorce. They are a loving couple who have been married for 53 years. Besides, if my parents got a divorce and my dad passed away, my mom would lose his pension, including the health insurance policy it provides.

It was a story that any middle-class American would understand. If our family were wealthy or impoverished, society would be happy to meet our needs. But for those of us who are middle class, there is little help.

We caregivers have made the personal sacrifices and we have stepped up. The work we do for free is worth $350 billion a year. If not for us, our parents would run through their assets and become dependent on society.

We and the people we care for need tax breaks, respite services, and government-screened home health attendants.

Barbara Bush is a human being. She deserves to live her final years in dignity and freedom in her own home. But you know what? So do my parents -- and so do yours.

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