So far, I have logged 256 hours in the process of helping my Dad downsize.
One day he pulled out his wallet. Inside was a check. He started to take it out to give to me, but I held up my hand.
“I just appreciate everything you’re doing,” he said. “And you shouldn’t have to do it for free.”
I glance at the check. It is for $100.00. It’s not the first time he’s tried to give me a check.
“”I’m not doing it for free, Dad. I know you appreciate what I’ve been doing, and I’m happy to do it,” I said. “But I quit my job so I could take on the job of going through your house and hanging out with you. I can’t afford not to work and not to be paid. It’s work for me. I’m sorry to say that I’m not just doing this to be nice. So I’m keeping track of my hours and in the end, I”ll be paid, whether it is by my siblings or by your estate, or whatever.”
He is silent, considering. He puts the check away. This happened three times over the past four months.
Then two days ago, he said, “You said you were going to give me a bill. Why don’t you go ahead and do that.”
I tally up my hours by the month, and suddenly find myself in a complex calculus with unintended emotional consequences. The question is, when it comes to family care, what counts as work, and what is just the expected contribution of being a family member? If I take him to an art class because I think it will be stimulating for him, and take the class myself — and enjoy it — does that count as work? Or are we just having fun together? If I have him over for dinner because I don’t want to cook his dinner and my own, should I keep track of those hours? When I spend two days flying to pick him up and bring him back here, how many hours of that should I include? Any? All? Half? A quarter? I opt for twelve hours out of the 48.
With every hour, I ask myself, is this right? Is it right to charge for this at all? Am I greedy for wanting to be paid? Throughout the months, I miss work, have to turn down freelance opportunities, miss writing deadlines, have to leave my daughter alone. What does this count for? How many hours am I working? It feels endless. It feels like I never have a break. And I don’t. It’s just as it was when my children were toddlers. I am working 24/7.
And thus I enter into what the AARP calls the emotional danger zone of caregiving. There’s a high emotional cost to this process.
According to the AARP website,
“Most caregiving starts out as a labor of love, but it can quickly grow into an expensive obligation. In these economically insecure times, caregivers are struggling with heavy financial responsibilities, especially if they’ve had to quit their jobs to provide care.”
When I agreed to look after my father, make his meals, keep him entertained and downsize his house all at the same time, my siblings and I agreed that I should be paid for my work. We researched what other local caregivers earned, and set an hourly rate. I told my Dad several times that I would need to be paid for my work, since I had quit my job to do work that needed to be done. The problem was, we never really talked about it with Dad. We never set a rate with him. To him, a good wage is still $1/hour.
I tally up the hours I wrote in my family calendar when I got home from my Dad’s each day and multiply by the hourly wage my siblings and I agreed on, less than I had been paid in my job, but based on the going rate of care in our community, and present it to him.
He stares at it. He looks at me. He is silent. For the next few hours, through dinner and beyond, he says very little, but stares into space. Every so often, he gives me a hard look.
“You are not being paid what you think you are worth, but what your employer thinks you are worth.”
Recently, my Dad has told an old story to several new people. It’s a story we’ve all heard before. After his junior or senior year of high school, my father had a summer job tending the local gas station in his small town in northwestern Kansas. He worked the station all night, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for one dollar. His job was to pump gas — literally pump, with a handle! The gas would rise up into a container with gallon marks on it. In this way, he would know exactly how much gas he had pumped. Then gravity would allow the gas to drain into the customer’s car tank.
Throughout the night, Okies would come through, their cars piled high with every belonging they possessed, fleeing the dust storms and poverty of the Depression, on their way to California. Sometimes they would have no money, but would offer to trade belongings for gas. Once, my father traded a tank of gas for a radio — his first radio. We asked how the station owner got paid, and my Dad said that he paid for the gas. He remembered the price of a gallon of gas being $.80 a gallon, but when we looked it up, it was more like $.11/gallon.
One day, my father complained to his father about his low pay. “I’m worth more than that,” he said to his Dad. “You’re not being paid what you think you’re worth, but what the station owner thinks your work is worth,” his Dad replied.
When we were young, my Dad would often fall into moods. My mother sometimes called him the “dour Dane.” We would chatter together, speculating about what was wrong. “What’s wrong with Dad?” “Why is Dad so mad?” There was a chill to the air. Which one of us had done something that displeased him? When he was mad, he said very little. He sometimes would go for a walk. Or a drive. When he drove when he was mad, all four of us crammed in the back of the car, he drove very fast. We were silent, too, the air electric with fear and uncertainty.
I feel that fear echo as he looks hard at me.
The next day, Dad comes over with a check. I look at it. “Dad,” I say. “You’re paying me about $1 an hour.”
“I don’t know what to pay you,” he says. He seems to have lost the invoice I gave him. He writes another check increasing the amount to $2/hour.
I print out my hours, without the fee, as well as the hours and fee for our friend who is working 5 hours/week. “Pay me what you are comfortable with, ” I say, “what you feel my work is worth.” But I think he already did.