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Caring for the Caregiver: An Interview with Alyson Lyon

Taking care of aging parents is an increasing reality for many baby boomers. If you are not engaged in caretaking of an elderly family member, you probably know someone who is. We have entered, for the foreseeable future, a perfect storm of increased longevity and rising healthcare costs.

I had the pleasure of meeting executive leadership coach Alyson Lyon of Higher View Coaching & Consulting. I learned that Alyson’s elderly mother-in-law lived with Alyson and her husband for over 10 years. Alyson’s perspective on her journey as a daughter-in-law, wife, and professional coach was fascinating to me as a financial advisor and as a daughter who tends to her elderly father. Alyson and I feel others can benefit from her experience so we sat down for an interview.

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Let’s start at the beginning: What transpired to cause your mother-in-law to move in with you? Was it a crisis or was it planned? I observe that many people wait for a health or financial crisis.

It was planned. My husband and I agreed that, when the day came when Mabel needed our direct help, we would be there for her. We had helped her with her finances and other aspects of her life when she was widowed and living alone, and that care was an open commitment for us. As my grandmother aged, my parents built a new house to accommodate both our family and my grandmother, so that is what I learned: you take care of family. Planning has many benefits. You can be proactive not reactive, you can consider lots of different scenarios, and you can involve the family member in need in the decision making.

A tough decision for all families is finding the best living arrangement for a loved one who needs increased physical and medical support. In looking at various arrangements, how did you arrive at the decision to move Mabel in with you?

As we considered various living options, money became the driver. Mabel could no longer afford to live at home as she aged with declining finances, and we could not afford to place her in a facility. She had long term care insurance, but she was not eligible to draw on it. Mabel’s home and ours was too small for three people so we bought a new home where Mabel, my husband, and I could live anew and comfortably.

Given all the planning you did and decisions you made, do you feel good about the outcomes for all involved?

We are all in a good place today. Mabel is in a nearby nursing home with good skilled care. My husband and I are running a successful coaching business and are settling back into a more stable marriage and home life. However…to get to where we are now, we traveled on a rocky path of stress, financial instability, and health problems that we never envisioned when we took Mabel under our wing.

Tell me about that rocky path….

I became a caregiver and not a daughter-in-law. As Mabel declined, I got more involved in her healthcare and it affected my health. My husband and I eventually suffered from caregiver fatigue. I had little time for my marriage between taking care of Mabel and attending to my career. It was 2001 and the economic impact of 9/11 hit us when my husband lost his job. We were now on precarious financial footing as my husband decided to launch a business with a new person in our house. We paid for all of Mabel’s needs so she could afford her costly Long Term Care Insurance bought at age 79. The confluence of bad health, increased expenses, and decreased time for our careers set us back financially over the decade.

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If you were coaching someone who was taking on caregiving for the first time, how would you help them?

I would tell them to draw clear boundaries, do their best, and not feel guilty about not being able to do everything. There are lots of resources out there. Don’t hesitate to rely on supportive friends and family – I was reluctant to do so. We did not use Meals on Wheels because Mabel didn’t like the food. I now see that using some aspects of the program would have helped free me up. We contracted home aides very late in Mabel’s stay when we all would have benefited from hiring them earlier. She expected us to do everything for her, that was her nature, and I fell into the trap of reacting to her as I did before she lived with us. I remind caregivers that relationship dynamics don’t necessarily change when you care for a loved one. It will be incumbent on you, the caregiver, to change long-standing dynamics when you inhabit your new roles.

It must be a relief to have the Long Term Care Insurance (LTC) to fall back on. How has your experience been?

While LTC has provided Mabel a subsidy for her nursing care, it has not been at a small price. It has been an eye-opening experience for me. Her insurer, CNA, denied Mabel’s first-year claims despite our appealing five times. With all other forms of insurance, the second party beneficiary has a vested interest to help you file claims – think car mechanic and doctor’s office. With LTC you file your own claims monthly, a laborious process, and her insurer will readily deny a claim if I don’t dot every “i” correctly. Who will do this paperwork for the elderly with no children? As is the practice with LTC, Mabel’s premium payments stopped once her benefits kicked in. I feel we are now just a liability to CNA. I have learned that I can engage a “claim jockey” to help file claims.

Thank you so much for your time and most of all, your openness and insights. Any final thoughts?

In the end, my husband and I feel very good about providing Mabel a comfortable, loving, and stress- free home for over 10 years. It was a rocky road and one I would travel on again without hesitation, but with some major caveats: I would take better care of me and my family by using more external resources, and I would give myself a break and shed my caregiver role while enjoying the company of friends and family. Lastly, I can’t say enough about Congressman Tim Murphy, who helped us successfully apply for Veteran’s benefits for Mabel. The application process is daunting and I encourage applicants to consider contacting their legislators for help.

Ladies, find out how healthy your financial future is.

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