Lipika Frith, 38, of Tallahassee, Florida, always thought her parents would have enough money to retire in comfort, but things didn't work out that way. After her father passed away two years ago, her 73-year-old mother, who was partially paralyzed, had a tough time paying her mortgage and mounting medical expenses. "Money is the last thing I wanted my mom worrying about," says Lipika, a part-time legal researcher. She tried to help conserve her mother's limited resources by buying her groceries and taking her out for meals. But that put a financial strain on Lipika and husband Jerry, 36, a salesman; they were already struggling with the high cost of raising their children, Kristopher, 16, and Maya Grace, 2. "Mom had some income and investments, but we worried how long her money would last, especially if there were more setbacks," she recalls.
Lipika, whose mother died in October, is one of the growing number of Americans who have felt the squeeze trying to help their aging parents make ends meet. Across the country seniors have seen rising costs take huge chunks out of their social security and pension checks. In the face of longer life spans and chronic illness, even those who've diligently saved all their lives are seeing their nest eggs dwindle and debt rise.
As a result, about one in three adults contribute to their parents' care—on average, some $2,500 a year—according to the Pew Research Center. That can be hard not only on your pocketbook but also on your emotions. "Becoming a parent to your parents is not what any of us expect to be doing at this stage of life," says Georgia Witkin, PhD, a psychiatry professor at New York City's Mount Sinai Medical Center. "It's new—and often very frightening— territory." Whether your mom and dad need to manage their money more wisely or cope with a full-blown financial crisis, there are ways to lend them a hand without sacrificing your savings or your sanity.