For more stories on elder care, check out the rest of America Tonight’s special series “Aging America.”
Before dying, Marina McClay’s mother asked her to promise one thing: “That you’ll take care of dad.”
“That was my mother’s only dying request of me,” McClay said. “And I said I would, of course.”
Her father, Robert, was more than a good provider; he was a renaissance man– a successful artist, jazz enthusiast and world traveler, who spent his 20s in Europe. Then, about five years ago, he started forgetting things.
“I discovered at some point that he hadn’t been opening his bank statements for more than a year,” she told America Tonight.
McClay is one of more than 40 million Americans who are considered informal caregivers – the silent army of family members who provide care to a skyrocketing number of aging adults.
People like McClay are at the forefront of a coming “care gap.” In America, a person turns 65 every six seconds. Today, there are roughly seven adults capable of providing care for every person age 80 or older, according to a 2013 study by AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans. By 2030, that ratio will drop to 4-to-1.
Three-quarters of family caregivers also hold down jobs, forcing many to rely on outside help. In order to work, McClay enrolled her father in an adult day care. The first month was hard enough, with her father accusing her of sending him to “adult nursery school.”
“Half of me wants to just say, ‘You know what, dad? You’re right. I’ll just let you live your life the way you want,’” she said. “But I can’t…He can’t remember to give himself regular meals.”
McClay's daycare and a part-time professional caregiver costs about $36,000. A private nursing home is even more crushingly expensive. McClay said her father bought long-term care insurance – a protection that only a small portion of Americans purchase – although he forgot about it the next day.
Even with the insurance, McClay’s life revolves around her dad. She cleans and cooks for him, runs his errands and stays home in the evenings and on weekends to look after him. McClay said she has no other choice but to continue, but it’s made her seriously rethink how she would want to be cared for should she need it.
“I don’t want my daughter to ever have to go through this,” she said. McClay added: “I don’t want to burden her with having to take care of me.”
Struggling for balance
Caregiving can take a hefty toll on a person’s emotional and physical health, particularly because the work can be isolating. For Alexandra, it all began when her father told her that that he had met a woman in the supermarket, and fallen in love.
As it turned out, her father, who is older than 80, met this woman, in her 40s, in the parking lot. Within a couple weeks of knowing the woman, who allegedly had cancer and needed to fly to New York for surgery, he had given away $20,000 in cash.
“That’s when I finally said, ‘You have to come to California. You can’t live by yourself anymore,’” said Alexandra, who asked to only use her first name.
Alexandra and her husband felt they wouldn’t be able to handle him in their own house. And even in a retirement home, her father was a handful. The situation became so difficult that she left her job as a lawyer, and spent a year attending a caregiver support group.
“He was calling me several times a day just to yell, just to say strange things,” she said. “The messages were quite cryptic. It got to the point where I had to block his phone calls.”
The sandwich generation
When Tracie Penning left Florida to help her parents in Greer, S.C., she thought her stay would only last two weeks. She hasn’t left.
The youngest of five children, Penning was the natural caregiver in her family, because her relationship with her father, she said, was always close.
“I am my father,” she said, “very outspoken, tell you like it is, whether you wanted to hear it or not. But my dad and my mom, they’re my angels.”
When she arrived at her parents’ home, Penning realized they needed more than temporary help. But she also knew that he would never want to be institutionalized or cared for by a stranger.
“My dad doesn’t want anybody in his house,” she said. “And I’ll ask him, ‘Dad, I think I’m getting ready to go back home this week.’”
By now, she knows his response.
“‘When? How long are you going to be? When you coming back?’” she said. “I know that’s him telling me, ‘I’m scared, don’t go.’”
Trained in nursing, Penning took over her father’s care. But that meant leaving behind her family, a husband and a 14-year-old son, in Florida. Many adults in the U.S. face similar challenges. Last year, a Pew Research study found that nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have an elderly parent, and are also raising a young child or supporting a grown one – the so-called “sandwich generation.”
On her Facebook page, “My Journey as Daughter, Taking Care of My Elderly Parents,” Penning has made a painful record of her past year as the sole caregiver for her terminally ill father and exhausted mother, and the sacrifices that’s involved.
The situation has turned dire, she said, bringing her marriage to the brink of divorce.
“My husband, he’s like a single father, so I expect him to have resentment. It’s OK,” Penning said. “But I also need to know that I have his support.”
What bothers Penning most is being away from her son. For Penning, and many others in similar situations, it’s an unenviable position with no easy answers.
“I’ve got so much going on,” she said. “I’ve got my Florida home. I’ve got my husband. I’ve got my mom. I’ve got my dad.
“Well, which one is more important? The mother or the daughter?”
Are you a taking care of a loved one? We want to hear from you.
Tell us about your experiences as a caretaker and how it has affected your life. You can share your responses here, via email at SharingMyStory@aljazeera.net or using the hashtag #AgingAmerica on Twitter.