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Some Seniors Face Shrinking Nest Eggs As They Care For Loved Ones During Pandemic

Anna Romero had to quit her part-time job during the coronavirus pandemic to care for her husband, Ivan, who has dementia.
Anna Romero
Anna Romero had to quit her part-time job during the coronavirus pandemic to care for her husband, Ivan, who has dementia.

Senior citizens are increasingly finding themselves with new responsibilities and a lot of hard choices because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those who have savings have to decide if they should dip into their accounts early, potentially eating away at funds they'd earmarked for later. Others are having to calculate how starting to receive their Social Security payments earlier than planned could reduce their checks in the future.

"Who can even think about it — your retirement? If you're struggling to put food on the table today, you're going to do whatever you have to do that's legal to be able to maintain yourself and your family," says Beth Finkel with AARP New York.

And in New York state, 2.5 million seniors are taking care of others, according to Finkel.

On a recent day in Brooklyn, Anna Romero is dealing with a common pandemic problem: finding a quiet spot at home. Her husband, Ivan, wants to watch TV in the living room, but Anna wants to talk on the phone. She's worried he's going to distract her, and she lets him know it.

"You can't talk to me while I'm on the phone," she says. "You need to stay there and I need to go in 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 with her into the bathroom. Matching white and purple hand towels with embroidered flowers hang on the rack behind her.

The Romeros have been married for 48 years. For more than three decades, Ivan was a school custodian and Anna worked at JPMorgan Chase. After that, Anna got a part-time job. Now, at 68, she's retired, but not by choice. Five years ago, Ivan was diagnosed with dementia and grew increasingly confused. Now when he gets dressed, he'll put on one sneaker and one shoe from another pair.

"He'll tell you he has no money, no clothes, and nobody loves him," Anna says.

Ivan forgets where the closet is or even the bathroom, and Anna needs 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 care 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 occupied. But when the pandemic hit, the center had to close and Anna had to quit. Her job couldn't be done from home, and someone needed to take care of Ivan.

Anna and Ivan saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in a 401(k) for retirement, but all their hard work and planning for the future also means that they're now stuck. With money in the bank, Social Security and small pensions, the Romeros don't qualify for Medicaid, which could pay for help for Ivan. For a while, if Anna needed a break, she hired a friend, someone Ivan was comfortable with, for up to $25 an hour. But between that, the mortgage, medication and all the other bills life throws their way, Anna says she has been forced to slowly withdraw from their savings.

"I'm not working anymore, so now I need more money out of pocket to be able to buy food and shelter and everything else. Bills. Everybody got bills," she says.

The husband of the friend she'd been paying to take care of Ivan got COVID-19 and died. Then her friend got it. Anna has some help from her kids, but now she's mostly on her own again. She has started having anxiety attacks. They feel like heart attacks.

"There's a lot of crying days. There's a lot of angry days. You have no idea. You have no idea how hard this is," she says.

Some older adults are facing another problem too. Because of job loss from the pandemic, almost half of 18- to 25-year-olds are living with their parents again, says Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the Wharton School.

"So part of what the older folk are doing is taking care of their children who are back home with them again," she says.

Mitchell says today's seniors are often more in debt than their counterparts were 30 years ago. They've taken on bigger mortgages and have more medical bills. Then, there are student loans.

"In fact, something like 6% of retirees are now having part of their Social Security checks garnished because of student loans they haven't paid," she says.

Some of that student loan debt is for themselves; some of it is for their kids. Anna doesn't have to worry about that — her kids are settled. College is paid for, and they're out of the house.

But she hopes to keep Ivan at home as long as she can handle it. If his dementia gets worse, care 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 conditions. She had a heart attack in 2001 and has coronary artery disease. And even when she's able to hire someone to take care of Ivan, she's worried. What if they don't understand him?

Anna has joined a number of support groups for women like her whose husbands suffer from early-onset dementia. And she's looking for a memory care center where Ivan's bills might be partially covered by a grant. She's hoping President Biden will release his own version of a health care plan that would provide more generous coverage for patients coping with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

But she also hopes that when the pandemic ends, she can go back to work just enough to try to ensure that the couple can afford their future.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sally Herships