What Families Talk About When They Think Beyond COVID-19

Families staying at home have a lot to talk about. Here’s one topic many haven’t made part of the conversation—and should.

By David O’Leary
(15 min read)

“I-24, I-24,” Matthew McConaughey called out to the members of the assisted living community near his home in Austin, Texas. An eruption of shouts and cheers followed. “We’ve got two winners!”

This was no ordinary bingo night—and not just because a movie star was running the show. It was bingo night, pandemic style1. Not in person, but over video chat.

For those of us physically separated from our loved ones, we can at least appreciate the ways technology has made it easier to connect with them. It’s a thin silver lining at a time when families can’t visit elders or get together for beloved traditions, like weekly coffee at the local café or an evening at the movies (the usual way to see Mr. McConaughey on a screen).

But for my family, at least, the combination of technology and time on our hands has given us a chance to connect more often than usual.

I hope other families are making the most of more time together—not only by reminiscing about past adventures and special occasions, but also by looking forward to the future. Dreaming up new adventures. Discovering new ways to celebrate those special occasions. And just maybe, to broach subjects we’ve been putting off or hadn’t thought to bring up in the first place.

Time: let’s spend a few moments on how the coronavirus—and the economic challenges that have followed—provides a great backdrop for parents and their adult children to discuss some important matters:

1. COVID-19 reminds us we’re not invincible. We shouldn’t forget that when the crisis is over.
2. We all get old. We will all see our health decline. And we all need to prepare for that.
3. The time to plan for the future is now.

As we discuss these topics, let’s first acknowledge our top priority must always be staying healthy. If we can do that, and if we can make the most of this chance to do some long-term planning, enabling families to emerge stronger than before.

1. COVID-19 reminds us we’re not invincible. We shouldn’t forget that when the crisis is over.

COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that normalcy is never guaranteed. Stepping back from the public health crisis that’s right in front of us, and you’ll see an even bigger financial crisis behind it.

Many Americans went into the pandemic on shaky financial footing—unprepared to cover smaller, surprise expenses2 they might face in the short term, while also feeling unprepared to meet the larger, expected expenses3 they plan to have in retirement.

We can’t afford to think about this as someone else’s problem. As I’ve written before4, we will all experience the consequences of failing to address America’s lack of financial preparedness.

In response to COVID-19, people have found so many ways to take action to look out for one other. Even something as simple as staying home helps protect our most vulnerable neighbors—including those seniors at bingo night.

I’m grateful to all the health care workers, first responders and their families who are going above and beyond to look after America’s most vulnerable. And by the way, we should all see ourselves as part of the “vulnerable population” essential workers are giving every effort to protect.

Although the disease caused by coronavirus disproportionally affects older adults, many younger people have seen themselves as invincible. By now, we’re all too aware that no one is invincible.

2. We all get old. We will all see our health decline. And we all need to prepare for that.

What older Americans are living through right now should mean a great deal to all of us—including the younger and nimbler among us. Think about it. It won’t be today. Maybe it won’t be tomorrow. But in time, the healthiest people with the most longevity will, by definition, become the world’s oldest.

As we all grow older, we’re likely to need increasingly more help with everyday activities like getting dressed and moving from place to place. In other words, we’ll need long term care.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “Someone turning age 65 today has almost a 70 percent chance5 of needing some type of long term care services and supports in their remaining years.” Perhaps the likelihood you’ll need help might not come as a surprise. But if you’re like most people, the cost of that help will shock you.

Long term care isn’t free. Even unpaid care6 from a family member still has its costs. For many, it isn’t affordable7.

The cost of care data8 our team at Genworth keeps updated indicates the most affordable type of care—adult day health care—typically costs $1,625 a month, while a private room in a nursing home is $8,517.

Compare that to the typical monthly mortgage9 and rent10 payments in the United States, both of which are around $1,000. Moving a parent to the nursing home care is a lot like buying eight extra homes at the same time—without gaining an iota of square footage.

Except, unlike having eight extra homes, long term care isn’t a luxury. Again, for 70 percent of us, it will be as much a basic necessity—and as much a part of the family budget—as housing, transportation, and health care.

The good news is families can manage these costs by planning ahead.

3. The time to plan for the future is now.

That might seem like a daunting task, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. But I know from experience: every recession is followed by a recovery. That includes the housing market collapse in the 2000s, the dot-com bubble in the `90s, and Black Monday in the ‘80s.

Just three years before that crash in 1987, my wife Lin lost her dad, Ken. The two of us spent much of our early 20s figuring out how to take care of Lin’s mom11, Barbara, while cobbling enough income together to cover our own rent. Thanks to sacrifices, careful planning and hard work, we got through it.

Today is no different. We’re seeing families go through a similar experience of moving in together.

The Boomerang—and the Reverse Boomerang

During the pandemic, many parents invited their kids to come home from college or work in faraway cities (with varying degrees of enthusiasm)12. They’ve temporarily become “boomerang children.” And yet on a more permanent basis, we’re also seeing a so-called “reverse boomerang” phenomenon.

An increasing number of adults have come to rely on their children to put a roof over their head. A Pew study of housemates in shared living spaces13 across America revealed something surprising: the portion who are parents living in their kids’ homes has doubled in the past two decades, from 7 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2017.

The New York Times recently told the stories14 of some of these families. One son spoke about his new roommate—his mom—who worked for decades in the hospitality industry. Years ago, she lost her job. She’s now spent down her savings. She’s moving in with her son only as a last resort.

“I don’t know what she could have done better, or how she could have prevented this,” the son told the Times. “She worked long hours, never called in sick and cleaned houses to make extra money when she wasn’t at her hotel job. She had no vices.”

Another spoke about her father, who came to visit and—to the surprise of his daughter, her husband, and the grandkids—never left. Luckily, he’s able to provide a little help with the family’s bills. The couple has loans to pay off, retirement to save for, and, now, three generations to support.

“I hope my kids don’t have to do this for me someday, but I think it’s beautiful that our children see that we’re taking care of our elders,” the daughter said.

A Chance to Start Planning Now

Younger adults might not face financial challenges like these for many years. That’s helpful, in that they have more time to plan. But it’s no excuse to put off planning—and that’s a challenge that many are facing right now.

According to a survey from earlier this year, 71 percent of millennials and Gen Xers15 say they know “little” or “nothing” about their parents’ financial situation.

Worse, more than half of that group hasn’t really had a chance to find out. They say they “rarely” or “never” speak to their parents about their retirement plans.

That needs to change. Because 68 percent of those adult children15 believe they’ll need to financially support their parents at some point.

What Lin and I learned in our 20s is the same advice we’d offer now. Having a little knowledge of the task at hand—and the tools at your disposal—can turn a daunting task into a manageable one. And preparing now can remove a great deal of stress from the equation when a need arises later.

That’s where long term care insurance16 comes in. It’s one of four key ways to manage the cost of long term care (the others being to pay out of your own savings, to provide unpaid care yourself, or to qualify for Medicaid—an insurance program designed for the destitute that is funded jointly by states and the federal government, and administered by states, according to federal requirements). 

But the first step toward feeling prepared is simple, and it costs absolutely nothing. All it takes is starting a conversation to find out where the family finances stand and what the plan is for long term care.

Talking About Both the Urgent and the Important

In normal times, we have to remind ourselves, as the saying goes, not to let what seems urgent crowd out what is important. But during a pandemic, the urgent is important.

Until we get through the pandemic, we must take precautions to protect our health and continue to be there for one other—in spirit, on the phone, and over video chat, if not in the room.

And when children and parents have a chance to be together, I hope they’ll take on the tough subject of planning their shared financial future. Here are a few resources that can help:

  • What to Plan For: Knowing the cost of long term care is essential to planning for it, but the cost varies greatly from place
    to place. That’s why Genworth created the Cost of Care tool17. Just put in your zip code, and you’ll see the prevailing price for everything from in-home care to a private room in a nursing home. You can even get a picture of what costs will be like decades from now.

  • Who to Talk To: Start with those closest to you. Genworth created checklists specifically to help younger people start the conversation with their spouse or partner18, as well as with their parents19. Once everyone is on the same page, you might also seek professional guidance from an attorney or financial advisor, as well as include certain other family members and friends.

  • How to Start: Genworth has suggested several ways to break the ice20: ask questions, compare situations, tell stories, or, if seems too difficult to have the conversation in person, send a letter or email. However you say it, the important thing is to say something. For more ideas, check out Genworth’s planning tools and checklists20.

As families navigate the need for physical isolation during this difficult time, we have a chance to deepen our social connections. In some sense, this unprecedented moment has created the exact circumstances where important family conversations can take place.

I get that nobody wants to think about getting older and needing some extra help. And I get that family finances can feel like a taboo topic. That can make long term care planning seem harder to do than it is in practice. But given how important it is to plan ahead, you’ll thank yourself for doing it well in advance.

The public health challenges we face in this moment may not entirely be within our control. But the financial challenges we are likely to face as we age don’t have to be.

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Next Steps: Plan for Long Term Care

This list will help you get everything in order to plan for long term care.

These suggestions will guide one of the most important conversation you will have.

You and your loved ones can have a sense of security knowing they'll be taken care of. 

There are costs associated with unpaid care from friend and family.

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