How do we manage the end game?

Talked to my mom this morning, our usual Sunday morning ritual, and she shared a story that is troubling to any of us in middle age and worried about our aging parents. I’ll tell it here without any judgment and let you think for yourself.

Mom volunteers at a local school, and was going through her yearly orientation meeting when she a teacher whom I will call Anne. At 56, Anne is dealing with a series of interrelated tragedies, which she recounted to Mom. She has been caring for her mother-in-law, stricken with Alzheimer’s. Her father-in-law’s health also recently took a turn for the worse. Along with caring for her ailing in-laws, Anne also is dealing with severe storm damage to her home – including a flooded basement and uprooted trees — which her homeowners insurance will not cover.

Overwhelmed by these pressures, Anne and her husband Jack asked her sister-in-law Janine, an unmarried teacher in her 40s, to step in and take over the parents’ care. With no husband or family of her own, Janine had given her heart and soul to her career and to generations of students, and she loved teaching. Taking care of her ailing parents became a fulltime job, and Janine had to abandon the career that she loved. Depressed, she killed herself.

This story raises a lot of questions. Couldn’t the parents have gone into a nursing home? Didn’t they have a house that could have been sold to finance that? Couldn’t Jack and Janine contributed towards paying for someone else to step in and care for the aging couple at home? Would a more resilient person than Janine have toughed it out? If insurance had paid to fix the overwhelming problems in Ann and Jack’s home, would the couple have had more strength to be caretakers?

We always hope that we won’t have to face tragic circumstances like these, but the fact remains that many of us will as our parents age. I know of several middle-aged friends facing the anguish of watching a parent transformed by dementia or Alzheimer’s, and making difficult choices as to whether to care for them at home or institutionalize them. Some are empty nesters; others are still raising kids – including good friends of ours who are taking care of their three children and a woman with advanced Altzheimer’s in a very small home. Some are families with money; others are struggling. The choice doesn’t seem to be any easier.

In my family we tend to dance around the question of “what if?” My mom tells us to “Call in Dr. Kevorkian” if she ever gets that bad; never mind that he’s dead and we’d never think of doing it anyway. My mother-in-law, who is in robust health, has long-term care insurance; my father-in-law, whose health is worse, does not.

It’s easy to question why Anne’s family tragedy happened and offer suggestions on how it could have been prevented. It’s harder though to see your way clearly when it happens to you. Maybe we boomers need to spend more time planning for the end game, even if it means asking tough questions.