The Babysitter Problem

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

It took me decades to unravel, but I think I finally figured out why my parents had nine children.

It wasn't just because they were Irish Catholic, and birth control was about as acceptable in the '60s as corned beef on Fridays. And it wasn't just because in those pre-cable, pre-satellite TV, pre-Internet days, in-home entertainment options were far more limited. And it wasn't just because they both grew up on farms in Ireland, where five children were seen as, well, a good start.

I've come to realize their procreational bonanza was linked to a simpler reason: so they could avoid The Babysitter Problem. 

As many a couple with a small child or a few has discovered, the occasional date night out can be what separates mental health from a mental breakdown. 

But only the most adventurous parents are going to leave preschoolers home alone. So babysitting services are occasionally required. But young families also tend to be on tight budgets, which means outside help can dramatically ramp up the cost of an evening on the lam. Yet for the babysitter, losing a Friday or Saturday night for the sake of $40 or $50 may not seem like such a good deal, either.

My parents found a work-around. They simply didn't go out until the first wave of kids was old enough to keep an eye on the next litter. And so on. Inelegant perhaps, but it worked.

Unfortunately, long-term care has a somewhat similar economic challenge, but it can't rely on the same answer. 

In fact, the median annual cost of a private nursing home room in the United States has increased to $87,600, according to Genworth. 

Like my parents, we need to find a way to address this daunting economic problem. In some ways we have, but not well. 

Simply put, the haves of our nation are writing checks to cover the freight for as long as they can. And once their fiscal reserves are depleted, they are doing what the have-nots have always had to do: count on a handout from the government (mostly through Medicaid).

Neither of my parents attended high school. But compared to the policy wonks, lobbyists, politicians and operators who have made our senior living ecosystem what it is, they were practically economic geniuses.