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Published February 15, 2014, 05:29 PM

Minding our Elders: Are adult children responsible for parents’ nursing home bill?

DEAR CAROL: Both of my parents are in a nursing home, so their once comfortable retirement savings will be depleted within another year.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: Both of my parents are in a nursing home, so their once comfortable retirement savings will be depleted within another year. I’m assuming that Medicaid will take over paying for their care, but I’ve heard of cases where adult children have been held responsible. Adding to that worry, my wife is showing signs of early on-set dementia. The symptoms aren’t too concrete yet, but it’s in her genetic history. What happens to me if my wife needs nursing home care? I don’t need a fancy lifestyle, but I do need a roof over my head and some money to live on. Thanks.

– Darryl

DEAR DARRYL: Many of us have watched everything that our parents have worked for disappear after months or years of nursing home care. That’s okay. Their money should be used for their care. However, after their resources are spent down, Medicaid should take over. Our elders deserve dignified care. They’ve worked and paid taxes so this payback is not charity.

As to your worry about being held responsible for your parents’ nursing home bill, there are some states that have what is called a filial responsibility law. To the best of my knowledge, this law has only been applied to nursing home costs in a few cases and those were situations where the assets of the adult children could take the financial hit. I doubt that most states would force families into bankruptcy rather than use federal dollars for Medicaid help in nursing home care. So, while I can’t tell you categorically that you won’t have a problem with your parents’ nursing home bill, I don’t think you will have to worry. You may want to contact an estate attorney or elder law attorney in your state to ease your mind.

Since your wife is genetically linked to early on-set dementia and seems to be showing some mild symptoms, you’d do well to see an attorney to do some early planning. You may be able to protect some of your assets if she doesn’t need nursing care for the next five years. Even if she needs care soon, you won’t lose your home and you will be able to keep some assets. I’m not a Medicaid expert and so much depends on your state’s laws that, again, it’s best for you to see an attorney for guidance.

I’d like to add a few other suggestions. Many well spouses find support and comfort by joining the Well Spouse Association at www.wellspouse.org. Also, as your wife’s health declines, it may be helpful for you to attend a support group in your community and/or take part in one of the many good support resources online. Give your parents care and attention, but realize that your major responsibility and challenge is your wife’s health and your own wellbeing as a caregiver. Your life will continue to be challenging, so support is essential. An indispensable resource for you is the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org. They offer guidance and education for both you and your wife.


Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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