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Posted March 10, 2008

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Finances: What?s My Care of Mom Worth?

Q. I am caring for my mother with Alzheimer’s in my home. We live in California -- she lived in North Dakota. We moved her here in May 2006 when I discovered my brother was depleting all her assets. She still has the property left there, and her lawyer and financial manager advise me that I should be paid a monthly wage for taking care of her. I am in the process of getting a conservatorship so I can further protect her. One lawyer told me I should be compensated $3,500 a month.

This has completely turned our lives upside down. My husband is planning on retiring in May, and all of our retirement plans are on hold. He has emphysema, and we wanted to travel. I have no choice, as I know that without my help all of her assets would be gone and she would still end up in my care -- and we can’t afford that. What are the rates for this type of work? Please help. Thank you.

Ethel A., Riverside, California.

A. Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's at home is both highly rewarding and also highly challenging. Often enough, the challenges of being a caregiver come from the some of the circumstances you describe: conflict between family members; loss of income; putting one's own plans on hold; and the issue of coping with the illness of a spouse while also attempting to help an aging parent.

For all of these reasons, it is very wise that you are talking with both an attorney and a financial advisor who are representing your mother's interests. It would wise for you to seek advice on your own situation regarding how much income you need to maintain your household. Also, what will retirement be for you and your husband, etc.

As to being conservator for your mother, this duty may include being responsible for her physical care and well-being and/or taking responsibility for her finances. Again, you are wise to have sought the help of an attorney so that any conflict of interest issue can be avoided.

Now, down to the brass tacks of your question: What are the rates for this type of work? From the research I've done in my writing on this topic, I can tell you that calculating the value of your services is more involved than simply setting a flat fee.

If you were to provide help to your mother in her own home, then you might be able to estimate that you would be giving her "X" number of hours. Then, by calling a home care agency in your area, you could project a fair wage in return for services.

But even when the individual is living in your home, many elder law attorneys will say the family caregiver must be just as specific in identifying what tasks are being done and the approximate number of hours spent each week. Some would argue that no one could claim "24 hour care / 7 days a week" because the caregiver will require rest, sleep and their own non-caregiving time away from the home.

Caregiver contracts also need to identify wages in exchange for services as taxable income. If your mother transfers assets to you in return for her care, then you are indeed receiving an income -- and the government will want its share.

Keep in mind that you may be eligible for caregiver tax credits or particular deductions for caring for a dependent.

With all of this in mind, I would strongly advise that you seek the advice of an elder law attorney who has experience in the creation of caregiver contracts (maybe your current lawyer has this skill?). Without such legal advice, I think you might run the risk of having to justify and defend every cent earned or spent on your mother's care.

I realize that getting legal advice and financial advice does not come without its own expense, but in the long run, I feel you'd sleep better knowing you and your husband will be on firm ground legally and financially, for the benefit of yourselves and your mother.

This answer is provided by Paula S. McCarron, a writer with more than 20 years of experience in healthcare, including nursing homes and hospice. Her writing includes extensive reporting on caregiver compensation issues. She lives in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and can be reached at paulamccarron@gmail.com.

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