Six years ago, I took over my father’s finances. Two weeks before signing the power-of-attorney paperwork, I was in a neurological intensive care unit on Long Island in New York, standing at the end of his hospital bed and clutching a ledger I had purchased from an office supply store. My father had suffered a grand mal seizure and was placed in a medically induced coma.
My eyes welled as they traced the intubation tube, wires and IVs that draped around my father like Medusa’s snake tresses. I was 25 and had just moved in with my boyfriend, who is now my husband, and was working in New York as a health reporter making what felt like barely enough to cover my commute. I knew nothing about money — and now I was in charge of my father’s complicated and secretive finances.
I had become an unpaid family caregiver at an age when I was still building a career and establishing financial stability. Young caregivers also report the highest levels of financial strain and emotional stress as a result of caregiving, according to a study by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving.
Until that point, I had been living a narrative that may be familiar to many Americans. My parents divorced when I was halfway through high school. We struggled financially, though my mother never let my brother and me catch on. It was always the three of us, and we moved a lot. Growing up, I knew my father through a revolving door in the lobby of our lives. Child support and his sobriety were just as unpredictable. Eventually, he made an attempt to sober up and rented an apartment in a town next to us.
The summer before my freshman year of college, my father got into a car accident on his way to work, breaking his neck and spine in four places. He underwent a series of surgeries, but he would be disabled for the rest of his life.
My father sued the driver who had hit him and reached a settlement. Suddenly, he was taking my brother and me on shopping trips and to nice restaurants, and he was folding money into our hands as he leaned in to kiss us on the cheek every time we parted. We were rebuilding again.
I graduated, earned a master’s of science degree in journalism and landed my first job — the same one I had when my mother called to tell me my father had suffered a grand mal seizure. My brother had been seeing my father on a regular basis and noticed a shift in his behavior. After months of warning me that “something’s off with Dad,” my brother was the one who broke down his door and found him.
My mother, brother and I tag-teamed. We followed up with his nurses at their shift changes and became friends with the parking-garage security guards. I stayed late at the hospital taking copious notes, and spent mornings at my father’s — kneeling over piles of paperwork, meticulously recording each bill I had paid in the ledger and discovering hidden keys to cabinets and passwords written on scraps of paper tucked away in books. My father’s older brothers visited and filled in the blanks where I couldn’t.
After countless hours of what felt like wandering in the dark, I finally decoded his filing systems, tracked down most of his bank accounts and hired an elder-care lawyer to process the necessary paperwork to handle his affairs.
The nurse called it a miracle the day my father could breathe on his own. I remember standing in the door frame, staring at her as she fussed over his blanket. I found myself unable to walk into the room, unable to look at him.
After months of rehab and physical therapy, my father was screened for release. I sat in the meeting with his care team on the verge of tears as they deemed him self-sufficient. He was thrilled to have control over his life again. As his daughter, I was relieved that this chapter was over for him. As his caregiver, I was afraid of how I was going to keep him safe.
But I never had to do it alone. My husband was a director at a home health care agency at the time and arranged for my father’s care with a home health aide and physical therapist. My brother took my father to his doctors’ appointments, did his grocery shopping, helped clean his apartment and spent time with him.
Though my parents were divorced, my mother was there at every turn. She was the only person he had truly ever listened to, making her critical to his care needs. She picked up his prescriptions, left work during breaks to check on him and was there to help when he had another bout of seizures.
Life went on. I married. I became pregnant during the pandemic. This was when my father joined a dating site and fell in love with a woman he had never met — a woman he said would be my stepmother. It was a romance scam: After months of phone calls and texts, she told him that she was stuck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and needed him to rescue her. He hopped in a cab and headed to the bank. While I was smiling down at my newborn baby, my father was being blacklisted from banks across America for wire fraud and money laundering.
By the time my son was 1, my father had stopped paying his rent. He had been receiving eviction notices for months and hiding them.
I was pregnant with my second child when one of my uncles called me to report that he had found an eviction notice during a visit with my father. I hired a moving company and rented a storage unit for all of the things he had accumulated over the years.
On moving day, my mother and brother handled everything on site as I sat on the floor of my furniture-less living room, in the first home my husband and I bought the month before. I cried, sinking into a self-deprecating spiral of blame. I had his power of attorney. I was the person he trusted to keep his money safe, even if that meant from himself. And now it was all gone.
As I continue as my father’s caregiver, I can only take what I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’ve taken full control of his finances with calculated execution and kindness. I’ve spent many hours on the phone with Medicare, researching health plans and planning out his costs. I’ve learned how to apply to waitlists for low-income housing only to discover how few housing options there really are in this country. And slowly, I’ve learned how to build better boundaries to protect myself and my young family. But I’ve never learned how to forgive myself.
The Transparency Talk
Cameron Huddleston was 35 and had two young children when she became her mother’s caregiver after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Although her mother was amenable to her daughter’s involvement and had much of her affairs in order, Huddleston, who has 20 years of experience in finance reporting, underscores how hard it was to navigate. She wrote a book, “Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk,” to serve as a guide for adult children to have difficult conversations with parents about their finances.
“There are so many emotions tied up in money,” Huddleston said. “Parents who are embarrassed about their financial situation don’t want their kids to find out that they haven’t managed their money well. Parents who don’t want to give up control don’t want their kids telling them how to manage their finances, even if they’re struggling to stay on top of them because of health issues, cognitive decline or financial mismanagement.”
Transparency is the linchpin. Huddleston frames it as a partnership that empowers the parent to share his or her wishes and ensure that they’re carried out, even if it takes several attempts before the parent concedes to sharing finances.
“But I also think it’s OK to say there are limits to what I can do,” Huddleston said. “That doesn’t mean that you don’t love your parent. Not everyone can put their own life on hold to care for a parent, especially if they have young children who are relying on them for support.”
A Difficult Transition
Wendy De La Rosa, a behavioral scientist and assistant professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has always been fascinated with how finances influence family dynamics and vice versa. When she was 9, she immigrated to the United States, and she grew up in a small apartment in the New York City borough of the Bronx with members of her extended family and watched how they managed their tight budgets.
De La Rosa studies why people act the way they do with money in order to pinpoint opportunities to make better financial decisions. She has found that we have a tendency to internalize our financial situations, which elicits emotions that direct a lot of our future spending behavior.
“It goes from ‘I made a mistake with money’ to ‘I am somebody who doesn’t manage money well,’” De La Rosa said. “And that’s shame — when we feel shame, we tend to put our heads in the sand and not talk about it.”
Shame can breed unhealthy relationships with money and people. This can be especially problematic for caregivers who manage their parents’ finances. Parents who haven’t reached the later stages of life may also have a more difficult time reconciling with their adult child’s role in their finances.
“We have to recognize that it’s really difficult when the transition happens,” De La Rosa said. “A lot of parents in this situation, putting aside mental health concerns, try to manage as much as they can on their own. By the time they ask for help, things have gone off the tracks and now we’re all in an emergency situation.”
A Checkbook Balancing Act
Michael Kolinovsky remembers his mother being sick his entire childhood. She underwent several surgeries by the time he had finished high school, and she died from ovarian cancer six weeks after he graduated.
“Nobody was telling me anything,” Kolinovsky recalled. “I didn’t know how serious her condition was. But my mom knew her time was short. She didn’t want to ruin my senior year of high school, so she kept a lot from me. When she passed away, it all felt so fast.”
Kolinovsky had never seen his father, Elmer, cry until he lost his wife of 27 years. Though her health made it impossible for her to work, she ran the household with fastidious care. She scheduled every appointment, took care of every bill and made sure the mortgage was paid off before she died.
Elmer was a foreman at the former Hillcrest Lamp Shade Company in Old Forge, Pennsylvania. Born in 1932, he didn’t make it past the fourth grade because of learning difficulties, now thought to have been dyslexia.
“As I got older, I realized my dad could barely read or write,” Kolinovsky said. “We never talked about it, but within a few days of my mom passing, I became the person who paid the bills, balanced the checkbook — everything. All of it was kind of thrown on me. It gets you to grow up quickly.”
At 18, he had taken an accounting class and completed honors math in high school. His mother had taught him how to balance a checkbook. No one had ever shown him how to pay insurance or medical bills. He had yet to file his own taxes.
Soon after the funeral, his uncle sat down with him to come up with a plan, and then a close family friend stepped in to help put it into action. At first, his father was nervous, staying on top of him. But Kolinovsky proved himself by developing a budget and guiding discretionary spending for his father, whose fixed expenses took up much of his income. It wasn’t long before they fell into a rhythm.
Kolinovsky left for his freshman year of college. His campus was a 30-minute drive away, and he went home every week to visit his father. They would have dinner, and then Kolinovsky would balance the checkbook, pay the bills, write checks for his tuition and review everything with his father.
“I never felt intimidated by it,” he said. “I definitely felt stressed out, but more than that I felt a deep sense of responsibility. There’s the emotional side, and then there’s this completely different side of financial impact that weighs heavily on your mind. You don’t want to mess up, right? That’s the scary part. If you miss something, you know, you’re going through the mail and you miss a bill. You really feel terrible. I’ve done it before.”
Kolinovsky graduated, married and had two children before getting an MBA. He worked as a financial analyst and eventually became a full-time coach for cross-country and track and field. He still made the time to be with his father every week.
“I did that until the day he died,” Kolinovsky said. “There were times that were more stressful than others. But my dad was a great human being. Anything I ever needed, he was the first person there.”
Lessons Learned and Unlearned
Last spring, just a few months after I moved my father closer to me and things began to settle, my mother began seeing spots of light, “like looking up at the sun,” she said.
Then one day, on her way out the door to work, she experienced a vertigo so intense she was unable to stand. After a trip to her primary doctor, then a referral for a CT scan, a radiologist reviewed the images, which revealed a tumor the size of a Ping-Pong ball in her brain. Life had been relentless for so long, so she tried her best to minimize the enormity of this discovery.
During the weeks leading up to her surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, I did everything to prepare. I read all there was to read about brain tumors, picked out calming teas and mint cough drops, bought new sheets for the guest room she would be staying in at my house as she recovered. I did everything but talk to her about the big what-if, the one that was now a very real possibility.
It was only after my mother came out of her successful six-hour surgery that I found out she had left a neat pile of documents in a folder on her nightstand. It had everything we needed.
I am still learning how to play the caregiver role in both my now-2-year-old’s life and my 58-year-old father’s. But now I know how to build structure, create the right environment and start that financial conversation with my son — right after we finish potty training.
c.2023 The New York Times Company. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.