Anna Romero had to quit her part-time job during the coronavirus pandemic to take care of her husband Ivan, who has dementia. Anna Romero hide caption
Seniors are increasingly facing new responsibilities and many difficult decisions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Those who have savings will have to decide whether to withdraw into their accounts early in order to potentially devour funds they had earmarked for later. Others need to calculate how receiving their social security benefits earlier than planned could reduce their checks in the future.
“Who can even think about it – your retirement? If you have trouble putting food on the table today, you’ll do whatever you need to do to feed yourself and your family,” says Beth Finkel with AARP New York.
And in New York State, 2.5 million seniors care for others, according to Finkel.
One day in Brooklyn, Anna Romero has a common pandemic problem: finding a quiet place at home. Her husband Ivan wants to watch TV in the living room, but Anna wants to make a phone call. She’s afraid he’ll distract her and she lets him know.
“You can’t talk to me while I’m on the phone,” she says. “You have to stay there and I have to go to the bathroom.”
For lunch, Ivan and Anna ordered a taco bell combo. It came with a free Strawberry Freeze so she brings her plastic cup into the bathroom. Matching white and purple towels with embroidered flowers hang on the rack behind her.
The Romeros have been married for 48 years. Ivan was the school administrator for more than three decades and Anna worked at JPMorgan Chase. After that, Anna got a part-time job. Now, at 68, she is retired, but not by choice. Five years ago, Ivan was diagnosed with dementia and became increasingly confused. Now, when he gets dressed, he puts on another pair of sneakers and shoes.
“He will tell you that he has no money, no clothes and nobody loves him,” says Anna.
Ivan forgets where the closet or even the bathroom is, and Anna has to remind him to brush his teeth.
“This is my new 24/7 caregiving job,” she says.
When Ivan was diagnosed, Anna found a memory center. He was picked up every morning and was there for five hours, playing dominoes and checkers, socializing and listening to music. Anna could go to work while Ivan was busy. But when the pandemic broke out, the center had to close and Anna had to stop. Her work couldn’t be done from home and someone had to take care of Ivan.
Anna and Ivan saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in a 401 (k) for retirement, but all of their hard work and planning for the future also means they are now stuck. With money in the bank, social security, and small pensions, the Romeros don’t qualify for Medicaid, which could pay for Ivan’s help. For a while, when Anna needed a break, she hired a friend Ivan was comfortable with for up to $ 25 an hour. But in between, the mortgage, the medication, and all the other bills life throws in their way, Anna says she was forced to slowly withdraw from her savings.
“I don’t work anymore, so now I need more cash out of my pocket to buy food and shelter and everything else. Bills. Everyone has bills,” she says.
The boyfriend’s husband who she paid to take care of Ivan contracted COVID-19 and died. Then her friend got it. Anna has help from her children, but now she is mostly alone again. She got anxious. They feel like a heart attack.
“There are a lot of crying days. There are a lot of angry days. You have no idea. You have no idea how hard it is,” she says.
Some older adults also face a different problem. Due to job losses due to the pandemic, nearly half of 18-25 year olds are living with their parents again, says Olivia Mitchell, director of the Wharton School’s Pension Research Council.
“Part of what the older people do is take care of their children who are back with them,” she says.
Mitchell says that today’s seniors often have more debt than their counterparts 30 years ago. They took out bigger mortgages and got more medical bills. Then there are student loans.
“In fact, about 6% of retirees have some of their social security checks garnished because of student loans they haven’t paid,” she says.
Part of that student loan debt is for yourself; Some of it is for their children. Anna doesn’t have to worry about that – her children are sedentary. College is paid and they are out of the office.
But she hopes to leave Ivan at home while she can handle it. If their dementia worsens, caregiving could cost thousands of dollars a month, and at that rate, the couple’s savings would be gone in about five or six years. Then what? Anna has her own health problems. She had a heart attack in 2001 and has coronary artery disease. And even if she can hire someone to take care of Ivan, she worries. What if you don’t understand?
Anna has joined a number of support groups for women like her whose husbands have early-onset dementia. And she’s looking for a memory center where Ivan’s bills could be partially covered by a scholarship. She hopes President Biden will release his own version of a health plan that will offer more generous coverage to patients coping with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
But she also hopes that after the pandemic ends, she can get back to work enough to ensure the couple can afford their future.