After my Mom dropped dead from a heart attack in March, my 91-year-old Dad moved to my family’s home in Connecticut for the last three months of his life. I will always feel blessed that he chose to spend his last weeks with me, my husband, and our children. From April to July, I curtailed my financial planning practice to perform the most important work I know and that I learned from being a mother of three: caregiver.
It was also an enormous challenge. I would wake up at night, trying to come up with liquid menus he might enjoy as last meals. I downloaded folk music from our childhood and went through old photo albums of our youth to try to show my father, the most important person in my life until I met my husband, how much he meant to me. I would spend hours trying to come up with the right words to express my gratitude to him at the end of his life. The job had no begin time or end time until the very end. My dad, who to me was always brilliant and dignified, became disoriented in his last weeks and mixed up night with day and near term events with those from the distant past. But every night, as we went through our evening routine at the wee hours after midnight, he would thank me for allowing him to remain in a family setting. At its core, this time I spent with my Dad was fundamentally good and right and essential to humanity.
But not according to our public policy which values the role of caregiving by family members at zero. We have put in place a tax and entitlement system that treats time spent with those in need as a personal indulgence, like playing a round of golf or getting a manicure, even though such nurture contributes enormously to our collective good.
Future blog posts will grapple with the history of how the feminist movement made great strides in our fight to give women equal rights in the work place. But this movement has utterly failed to honor the value of traditional “women’s work,” from raising children to taking care of the elderly to creating and maintaining a home. We should wear this mantle with pride, not yield to the rhetoric that such efforts are not worthwhile work.
In the example of caregiving for my 91-year-old dad, not only did I give up my professional income to look after him, but current financial rules precluded me from the ability to contribute to Social Security or retirement for time spent with him. Those who devote years to family caregiving not only pay a heavy financial price at the time of service, but also continue to pay the price well into the future with diminished resources in their senior years.
Politicians love to talk about family values. We need public policy to catch up with such rhetoric.