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Consider the cost of caregiving

Gay Harlowe, a reader from Mulberry, Fla., speaks plainly and with passion about the financial toll grown children suffer when they must stay home to care for an aging parent.

“It seems no one is concerned (with caregiving issues) until they encounter it themselves,” Harlowe said. “I’m hoping that your column can help bring needed changes.”

We do think that many public and private groups, and the politicians too, are concerned about what can only be described as a caregiving crisis in our country. If only for self-preservation, something will have to be done.

For example, based on figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, there are more than 100,000 employment vacancies of all kinds in long-term care facilities in the United States. By the year 2020, there is expected to be a shortage of some 800,000 nurses nationwide, including 200,000 in long-term care.

No wonder then that an estimated 21 percent of American adults are providing some level of unpaid caregiving, with many grown children - typically the women - reversing roles and taking care of their aging parents.

Such caregiving - from occasionally assisting with the grocery shopping to helping a frail relative take a bath and get out of bed every day - can be a stressful responsibility that often leads not only to depression and anxiety but also to missed career opportunities.

This subject is getting growing media attention, including a recent long-running series on NBC’s “Nightly News.” We don’t know that this column has the power to bring about change, but we want to keep the issue alive. The best way, we think, is to hear from Harlowe.

“I stayed home as my mother’s caregiver for two years in order to keep her out of a nursing home (until she died),” Harlowe said. “How did this affect me?

“I had zero earned income for two years of what should have been prime earnings years. This reduced my Social Security benefit a few years later. I could not make IRA contributions because I had no earned income. I had no access to a 401(k) to provide for my own retirement.

“I also had no access to employer-provided health insurance. I had to pay for my own health insurance, which excluded pre-existing conditions. I became ‘uninsured’ for those conditions and had to pay full hospital and physician charges, not negotiated insurance rates.

“My professional training became outdated and my future earnings potential was also reduced. I had to pay single income tax rates (rather than head of household status, which would have resulted in lower taxes).

What happened to Harlowe is hardly unique.

“More and more children, primarily females, are assuming the role of caregivers for their parents,” she said. “As our baby boomer population ages, this will become even more prevalent. When the children are in their 60s and 70s, this becomes even more difficult. It’s no wonder that some children have no alternative except to put their parents in a nursing home - and on government welfare rolls.”

Harlowe believes adult caregivers should be allowed to contribute unearned income (income other than from work, such as interest on savings) to IRAs and 401(k) plans. They also should be allowed to claim in their tax returns the same type of deductions and credits that parents now claim for the care of children, she said.

And those who are single and caring for an aging parent should be granted the more favorable head of household tax filing status even if the parent is not a financial dependent, Harlowe said.

As a longstanding policy in this column, we don’t take a stand for or against tax policies. We are also not qualified to gauge the financial impact of such proposals. But the issues Harlowe raises are most pressing and deserving of serious attention by our private and public policy makers.

Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com.