Photo of a woman holding her mother by the arm and carrying a bag for her as they walk through a canopy of trees in a park.
The latest Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index survey finds caregivers struggling to help others while focusing on their own finances.
Financial Health
October 1, 2019

Managing through the ‘caregiving crunch’

As a new Wells Fargo/Gallup study finds investors facing rising debt and increased demand to provide money, time, and assistance to family members, Wells Fargo experts and caregivers offer ways to cope.

Maria Hudgins, 55, has so many demands for her time and money that her friends call her a “club sandwich.”

At just 31, Brandon Mueller has already helped two family members face terminal cancer diagnoses.

Laina Dutton, 48, went on a ski vacation and returned home with an altered life and new responsibilities.

They are not alone in their struggles, according to the latest Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index survey1.

Conducted Aug. 5-11, 2019, of 2,091 U.S. investors age 18 and older, the survey found nearly half provide money, time, or other assistance to adult children, parents, or extended family. The financial support alone averages $10,000 a year, according to the investors’ estimates.

Also according to the survey, 1 in 5 investors spend about 13 hours a week caring for one or more family members. Moreover, roughly a quarter of investors (23%) say their commitments of time and money have hurt their ability to save for retirement, and more than 1 in 3 (38%) say they make it harder to focus on their jobs and careers.

“The generosity investors are showing is commendable and, ideally, they are giving from a position of strength,” said Mary Sumners, regional president for Wells Fargo Advisors in Minneapolis. “If not, something has to give as they seek to prioritize and balance their own financial futures against the demands of this caregiving crunch.

“Working with an advisor to build and maintain a comprehensive plan may help investors avoid sabotaging their own goals as they seek to help close relatives.”

Sandwiched between parents and children

Photo of Maria Hudgins and her child with the quote: “My family is Cuban, so we have an inherent dedication to each other. We don’t think twice about supporting our parents — it’s just what we do.”

“My friend calls me a ‘club sandwich’ because I have pressures even beyond those typical of the sandwich generation,” said Maria Hudgins, executive of a Fortune 500 company in Missouri City, Texas. She lost her husband to cancer four years ago, is raising her 17-year-old son and six-year-old granddaughter, splits caretaking for her parents with four siblings, and financially supports her mother-in-law. Additionally, she has two other sons, ages 25 and 29.

“It takes a village,” she said of the caregiving demands. “My family is Cuban, so we have an inherent dedication to each other. We don’t think twice about supporting our parents — it’s just what we do. I simply could not balance all of the emotional and financial pressures without the help from my friends and family, an understanding manager at work, and maintaining my physical and mental health through regular exercise and counseling.”

Mariana Martinez, a family dynamics consultant for Wells Fargo Private Bank, said she thinks Hudgins is wise to have built her own support network and not tried to go it alone.

“These issues are tough because they tap loyalties between relatives, and because we all know we’re supposed to be there for each other,” Martinez said. “There can be a lot of guilt associated with caregiving when you feel like you can’t do as much as you’d like to. Things can quickly get out of balance with one or more parties carrying too much of the load and feeling overburdened.”

When issues arise, how you talk about them — and the words you use — are critical, Martinez said.

“You won’t get very far criticizing others or complaining,” she said. “Instead, talk to each other about caregiving issues and responsibilities in ‘we’ vs. ‘me’ terms, focusing on the problem and not the people and personalities: Say, ‘We as a family have this problem, and we can find a solution together.’ Let the caregiver explain what they’re experiencing, what is difficult, and hear their concerns. Ask for suggestions and the opinions of those being cared for. That will make it a joint project and a problem to be solved instead of a family tragedy.”

Millennials feel the crunch too

Photo of Brandon Mueller with his late mother, Pam Key, and quote, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s your time, commitment, and support doesn’t necessarily end when someone is gone. Sometimes that is really where it begins.”

Brandon Mueller of Herculaneum, Missouri, understands family tragedy all too well. He got the news Dec. 26, 2017, that his 49-year-old mother, Pam Key, had stage 4 breast cancer.

Over the next 18 months and until her death July 9, 2019, Key received multiple chemotherapy treatments. As his mother fell ill, Mueller’s mother-in-law learned she had stage 4 lung cancer as well. He and his wife did their best to balance careers while caring for their newborn daughter and providing caretaking assistance to their mothers.

An only child, Mueller, head of parts and services for an overhead crane dealer, spent most of his vacation time attending medical appointments and navigating the health care system for his parents. Weekends were spent bouncing between parents’ homes.

“So much of your life gets put on the back burner,” he said. “At the time, it felt like we never had time for ourselves. Looking back, I would give anything for another Saturday spent taking care of her.”

Now that his mother is gone, Mueller is leading the effort to get his mother’s affairs in order. From life insurance claims to rolling over her 401(k), from sifting through bills to canceling credit cards, he’s initiated every step and is by his dad’s side helping him make sense of it all amid his own grief.

“At 31, I didn’t expect to not only bury my mom, but to have to spend so much time helping my dad through the grieving process as well as sort out their estate,” Mueller said. “There are only so many hours in the day, and I am constantly trying to balance making time for my daughter and wife while also being there for my dad as much as possible — not to mention working through my own grief.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that your time, commitment, and support doesn’t necessarily end when someone is gone. Sometimes that is really where it begins.”

Life can change in the blink of an eye

Photo of Laina Dutton with her dad and quote, “I’ve always been a planner and investor and live within my means, but it’s the time of caregiving that has the biggest impact.”

Unlike with an extended illness, Laina Dutton of Lafayette, Louisiana, didn’t have warning that her life would change overnight. While on vacation in December 2018 skiing with her son Holden, 14, the call came. Her 79-year-old father, Roger, had suffered multiple seizures and was in intensive care. Even worse news soon followed: Her 75-year-old mother, Margaret, had gone home from the hospital and died overnight of a heart attack. 

“It was devastating,” Dutton said.

The stress of planning her mother’s funeral and caring for her ailing father took an emotional toll. She stepped away from washing dishes one night to have a difficult phone conversation and returned later to a flooded kitchen and $60,000 in water damage. “All of these stressors just put me over the edge,” she said.  

Dutton credits her knack for budgeting and financial management with helping her balance caregiving against her own financial needs and goals. 

“I’ve always been a planner and investor and live within my means, but it’s the time of caregiving that has the biggest impact,” she said. “For example, last year I ranked 13th out of more than 80 sales representatives in my company and this year, I’m ranked No. 50. My bonuses this year are a quarter of what they were in the past. I work really hard but, these days, there doesn’t seem to be enough of me to go around.”

Plan ahead to prepare for the unknown

Split-screen photo of Wells Fargo Advisors Regional President Mary Sumners at left and Wells Fargo Private Bank Family Dynamics Consultant Mariana Martinez at right.
Mary Sumners, regional president for Wells Fargo Advisors in Minneapolis, and Mariana Martinez, a family dynamics consultant for Wells Fargo Private Bank.

Sumners said the Wells Fargo/Gallup survey shows investors may not be planning appropriately to provide for family members, and their retirement and financial futures could pay the price.

“This generation of investors may need to supplement what their parents didn’t save for decades,” she said. “In addition to their parents, many have children turning to them for basic needs well beyond their college years too, possibly because of the debt they’ve accumulated.

“It’s a big risk,” she said. “A comprehensive plan can help identify whether investors have saved enough for their goals and can spur them to look for ways to save more for the future. If you are saving 10%, can you save 12%? Are you maximizing contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts? Will your health insurance at work allow you to contribute to a Health Savings Account, or HSA? With rising health care costs and longer life expectancies, every bit of savings can help.”

Martinez noted survey findings also reveal a continued shift toward parents meaning well, but possibly going overboard in how they help their children.

“As parents, we’ve been trained to think that our children’s happiness is our duty,” she said. “I think we’re sometimes going beyond the reasonable to provide ‘happiness’ and don’t know how to take a step back.”

That has not been a problem for Hudgins, who set clear boundaries early and often with her children so they knew the strings that came with her financial support. While she did let her son and fiancee live in her home, she required them to pay rent and created a plan that ended last month with their purchase of their own home.

“Having a plan and setting boundaries is key,” she said, adding, “The best advice I could give anyone for enduring the caregiving crunch is this: It’s not as bad as you think. You will get through it. I say this because after I lost my husband to cancer, I didn’t think I could manage. But I have.”

Tips for financial caregiving

  • Set boundaries with adult children early and often so you don’t perpetuate a cycle of dependence. Make sure they understand financial assistance is a last resort and not a given.
  • Develop action plans with family members you support that focus on how they might achieve financial independence over a set time span.
  • Encourage aging parents to think through and discuss long-term care needs before their health deteriorates to help them be better prepared financially and emotionally.
  • Be realistic about expected costs in retirement, and take proactive steps to address your own long-term needs — including long-term care insurance, savings accounts earmarked for health care, or other savings strategies or actions.
  • Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.
  • Don’t go it alone. Develop a support network and don’t hesitate to ask for help from friends and family.
  • Spend less and save more. You may be surprised what it can add up to over time.
  • Since there is so much you can’t control, look for small improvements — in relationships, life goals, and circumstances for instance — and celebrate these moments and milestones.

1The results of this Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index survey are based on a Gallup Panel web study completed by 2,091 U.S. investors, aged 18 and older, from August 5-11, 2019. For this study, the American investor is defined as an adult in a household with stocks, bonds or mutual funds of $10,000 or more, either in an investment account or in a self-directed IRA or 401(k) retirement account. The sample consists of 61% non-retirees and 39% retirees.

Wells Fargo & Company and its affiliates do not provide legal or tax advice. Please consult your legal and/or tax advisors to determine how this information may apply to your own situation. Whether any planned tax result is realized by you depends on the specific facts of your own situation at the time your taxes are prepared.

Wells Fargo Advisors is the trade name used by Wells Fargo Clearing Services, LLC and Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network, LLC, Members SIPC, separate registered broker-dealers and non-bank affiliates of Wells Fargo & Company. Investment professionals referenced in the article , when registered, are registered representatives of Wells Fargo Clearing Services, LLC.

Wells Fargo Private Bank provides products and services through Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. and its various affiliates and subsidiaries. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. is a bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Company.


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