News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 8, 2006

Pete Chalos: The future of elderly care in America


This past month, my family and I have been reviewing all available options for the future care of me and my wife Ulla. At 78 years old, I am finding that I can no longer take care of myself and my wife the way I once could. In truth, it’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to do so on my own, but learning to accept and admit it has been a difficult process.

My son John is still unmarried and without children so much of the burden has fallen on his shoulders this past four years. There has not been a week since Ulla and I began having serious health issues that John hasn’t exceeded 40 hours in caring for us and it has often been quite a bit more than that. My son Jim is a firefighter, runs a carpet-cleaning business, sits on the City Council and raises four children. My daughter Kathy is a teacher, is pursuing her masters degree, is campaigning for County Council and has two children. Jim and his family come by the house to help out whenever possible. Kathy gives me my insulin shot and medication every morning, handles my finances and brings her family to see us every week. The rest of the family contributes whenever they can.

In reviewing our options this past month, we have considered moving into an assisted living complex. The facility we toured seems pleasant and adequate for our needs but the prices are extremely high. The other alternative is to hire a reliable agency to provide qualified full-time caregivers on a daily basis which would also be extremely expensive.

There is no option on the table that is not costly. Continuing to allow the family to bear the responsibility is the most affordable option in terms of finance but may end up costing us the most by robbing our children of opportunities.

Hillary Clinton once said that it takes a village to raise a child. These days, it takes a village to care for Grandma and Grandpa, too.

Looking at the statistics, my family is not alone in this situation. According to a 2005 survey from Campbell-Ewald Health, 13 million Americans are currently involved in caring for elderly parents. American families are providing $257 billion in free care for their elderly relatives annually. Nearly 20 percent of the American work force is involved in this care, costing employers $11.4 billion dollars in productivity each year. According to a study by the Families and Work Institute, men are just as involved as women and many of these caregivers have children depending on them as well.

Health care for the elderly has accounted for over $100 billion in spending the past 5 years. By the year 2020, the number of senior citizens in America is expected to double to 70 million and it is estimated that 12 million of these seniors will need nursing care. This will increase the tax burden substantially. About 1 in 8 Americans were elderly in 1994. One in five will be elderly by the year 2030. How are the young going to pay enough in taxes to support the needs of the elderly? If they can support them, will there still be enough money left to pay for new roads, good schools and our national defense?

Do the supply-side political gurus of the day plan on outsourcing the care of our elderly along with the rest of our jobs? Is our next generation of senior citizens going to be shipped off to Mexico to live in factory nursing homes?

Each person has an obligation to prepare for the final stages in life. We all have an obligation to try to live healthy lives so those around us won’t be forced to carry the responsibilities we should bear on our own later in life. Physical fitness, nutrition and avoiding unhealthy practices is something we should do for ourselves but also for our children.

We also have an obligation to prepare financially for retirement. Spending all of our money on ball games, trips to Las Vegas, alcohol, cigarettes or the lottery may seem thrilling at the time but there is a price for all that. Down the road, when you are older and ready to retire, your children will have to pick up the tab for your vices. Instead, we should balance our enjoyment of life with our responsibilities. It’s OK to eat your share of the pie, but don’t eat the next generation’s, too.

Our current government has a huge responsibility as well. Spending has gotten so out of hand and we are accumulating such huge deficits that it will take several administrations and half a dozen decades to pay off our debt. Our government has let our children down. We’ve borrowed from our future. Fiscally responsible leaders need to take the helm of this country and lead us away from our excesses. The American people need a leader who has a plan for the future.

In the coming month, I will have to make a decision concerning my family. It isn’t simply my own future at stake but the futures of each of my children and each of my grandchildren. When making policy in government or decisions concerning the family, one must always consider the greater good. The decisions we make must be based on our immediate needs but also the needs of those we love and hope to see succeed. “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.” — 1 Corinthians 10:24.

Pete Chalos, a longtime teacher, coach and public servant in Vigo County, was mayor of Terre Haute for 16 years. Send e-mail to pchalos@netscape.com.