Published Apr 22, 2016

Compensating Caregivers in Farming Families

By Teresa Opheim

There are so many PFI members who have spent years caring for aging family members. On example: The Dahl Family near Rolfe, who cared for Kathy’s mother (and my grandma’s friend) until her death in December 2015 at age 100.

The Dahls and others provide that care out of love, respect and duty. Should they be compensated, either at the time the care is given or in their parents’ estate plan?

This tricky issue is highly relevant for farm transfer, as it is often you who stayed home to farm who also provide much of that end-of-life care. And we are talking about caregiving that can be worth a significant portion of an estate. According to the website, a home health aide makes $10 per hour. If a relative is giving Mom eight hours a day of this care, she is giving the equivalent of $29,000 a year. Some relatives provide this care for 10 years or more.

Connie Tjelmeland and her friend Margaret Smith on the TJ Farm.

Connie Tjelmeland and her friend Margaret Smith on the TJ Farm.

Of course, nursing home care is far costlier. Semi-private rooms cost an average of $222 a day, or more than $81,000 a year, according to a survey from MetLife cited by U.S. News & World Report (2012 figures). For private rooms, rates jumped to an average of $248 a day or more than $90,500 a year. With the average stay coming in at 835 days, nursing home costs range from about $185,000 to $207,000.

Experts in Minnesota are estimating that caregivers in that state provide $8 billion per year of care that is not compensated for. Minnesota is debating a caregivers’ leave act, because these caregivers often have reduced their income to provide this care, because they have to leave or reduce hours at paying jobs.

PFI member Connie Tjelmeland, who farms with her husband Mark in Story County, helped her mother for about 13 years, the last 10 in her home.  Connie reports:

“I managed her business affairs and her personal care. The latter increased with time. When she moved in with us, she could walk around the house with a walker, dress herself and use the bathroom. For nearly the last three years she was unable to walk and needed almost total care. I wasn’t alone though. My sister, Marlys, moved back to Iowa for the summers at the time Mom moved to our house, and we shared the work during those months.

“My other siblings either lived a long way away or didn’t have the flexibility to offer much help beyond moral support.  My mother made it very clear to Marlys and me that she wanted to pay us whatever we thought was appropriate. Our three other sisters and brother were satisfied with letting us decide our level of compensation and adjusting it upward as Mom’s needs increased. I was fortunate that there is a high level of trust among my siblings.

“To free up time so I could care for Mom, we did have to give up [our] egg enterprise. And we had to hire farm help to make up for work that I would otherwise be doing. The compensation I received from Mom probably did not cover those financial losses but came close.

“I found myself with an internal struggle between wanting on the one hand to give back to my mom free of charge all the loving care she had given me when I was young and on the other hand to be paid for my time. The desire to be compensated as fairly as possible always rose to the top, though, and I do not have any regrets about that.”

Another PFI member who is being compensated for care giving is Ruth Rabinowitz, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, but is a frequent visitor to Iowa, where she manages her family’s farms. Her father lives in a care facility, which does “the bare minimum, food, dressing, cleaning, laundry but as we all know there is much more to life than,” Ruth says.

“I became his part-time employee as a W2 worker recently (giving him a great deal/value on my time) because the hours all of this takes removes my energy, time from other parts of the work-world I am unable to engage with. Our CPA recognized and recommended this route so it’s fair, and we all avoid caregiver burn out because of the compensation and the respect that engenders.  If children can equally care-give a parent I think there may not need to be much or any compensation. In my mind, when the care giving shifts on to only one child/person then compensation is a good way to go. As in our situation it’s not that my sibling doesn’t want to do this work, the miles distance and other factors, such as young children, make it impossible. No one’s fault in the end. However, care giving is a big job that comes with stresses and huge responsibilities and needs to be taken seriously.  Advocating for a senior medically, psychologically, spiritually, economically is extremely important. Quality of life issues such as weekly, daily scenic drives, special foods, flowers, birthday parties, and special holiday events strengthens the senior in so many ways.”

Another member reports that her sister is now providing significant care for her parents, and the member has brought up the subject of compensation several times to her parents. “My parents have an estate plan that does not provide extra compensation to my sister (there are five of us siblings).  Rather they are still of the ‘equal is fair’ mindset. However, they have made provisions that my sister will inherit the farm home so that she will have a place to live. Not perfect, but it is something!”

Of course every family is different, and compensation may work well in a family like Connie’s, with a lot of trust, and be a disaster in another family without it. It’s worth exploring, though, the contributions of those who stayed home and provided comfort and care as their parents sickened and aged and then left this world.