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Elder Care and Health Care, When You’re a Freelancer

Veena Vasista - Pyragraph
On the plane to Chicago. Photo by Veena Vasista.

Without a partner and childless, I have more flexibility in my life than most people. After 20 years of living abroad, I could easily return (and have) to the US to join forces with my siblings in looking after our elderly parents. This year my father will be 84. My mother will be 78. In my mind, one advantage of being freelance is the flexibility it can give me to work from different locations. For me, such freedom is very relevant to the matter of elder care.

On 10th November 2014, my father had a massive heart attack. I flew that same day from Santa Fe to the Chicago suburbs. I had been planning to take a train there right before Thanksgiving. I had been planning to be with my family for Thanksgiving and then stay for two months through to the end of January and perhaps even February, to support my parents during harsh winter months.

What happens when I start shelling out more money for health insurance, but don’t in the end earn as much as I hoped I might?

This arrangement would not be possible if I were in a conventional job.

My siblings and I are in the throes of navigating elder care. Of integrating the care of our parents into the infrastructures of our adult lives. Yes, if supporting my family is that important to me, I could move to the Chicago area and get a “real” job in order to be nearby full-time. Thing is, the kind of job I would take—in the nonprofit sector—would likely be exceedingly demanding of my time and energy and unlikely to leave much free time to be fully useful in elder care.

And, in any event, I left that type of work in 2008 for reasons that still stand.

First, I’m not well-wired for it anymore. My skills are more likely to flourish in a way of working that is more fluid, organic and flexible.

Second, I want to be a writer. I need time and space to practice my craft. A craft that can be done from anywhere, including—as I am doing now—from the Toyota dealer’s waiting room while my parents’ car gets an oil change and repair work done.

Third, I don’t want to lead one of those typical I’m-so-busy-I-hardly-have-time-to-think-properly-and-take-care-of-myself lives. I know might seem odd given I’m single with no children. Doing it all—including being employed full-time in an organization—probably sounds like an easy feat in my case. It probably sounds like I could have it all without getting too busy, without feeling overwhelmed.

Well, that is perhaps a theme to explore in a future post.

I’ll leave the above points at this: I want to be a freelancer because in theory it enables me to harness my skills and passions in ways that expand my capacity to be in service to others both through my work and social relationships, e.g., I can support my elderly parents to feel well-cared for, and I can support arts-led social movements for justice and equality.

This brings me back to the theme of moving-back-to-the-US-is-a-shock.

With my debut piece as a Pyragraph writer, I shared my frustrations about the behemoth called health insurance coverage. These frustrations continue to grow. In some ways, the Affordable Care Act is a gift to freelancers. In other ways, it seems to be very challenging.

I’m thinking here about the way it is tied to speculating on my income. I’m in a situation where I’m experimenting with finding out which of the activities that make my heart sing also can bring me income. At the end of last year, I went to report an increased income from the previous year to the marketplace—based on projects I hope will bear fruit, rather than actual signed contracts. The modest projected change in income would double my monthly insurance payments, raise my deductible from $0 to $500 and my out-of-pocket cap from $500 to $2,000.

What happens when I start shelling out more money for health insurance, but don’t in the end earn as much as I hoped I might?

In any event, I think an out-of-pocket cap of $2,000 is high. This is not government creating affordable access to healthcare.

How can we artists find inventive ways to co-create built-environment, social and economic systems that support us?

The other issue arising is that I’m splitting my time between Santa Fe (where my heart sings and my art thrives) and the Chicago burbs (where my parents live). The privatized health insurance system is structured on the assumption that people stay in one place. It doesn’t encourage splitting a life across different states. Sure, I have a multi-state plan, but it doesn’t exactly make it easy (let alone affordable) for me to get treatment wherever I am in the US.

In short, I’m finding that our system of privatized health insurance—even when subsidized by US government tax credits (ohh, you don’t want to get me started on the perniciousness of this) doesn’t leave me feeling at all secure as a nomadic, setting-out-on-a-new-path freelancer.

Meanwhile, I’ve arrived back in the US after living in London and spending my adult life (and I’m now 44) not needing to own a car. You see, there’s this invention called public transportation. Not only does the healthcare system (and it seems very generous to call it that) here suck, so does public transport.

Add “car” to the list of necessary-things-to-own-and-make-regular-payments-on, and the balancing act of being a freelancer in the arts and paying the bills becomes even more precarious.

The refrain I often hear to all this is “Stop whining. Get a real job!”


I’m here back in the US wanting to use my skills to make a useful contribution to growing the Beloved Community. Only our built-environment and our social and economic systems in the US aren’t geared towards creating a secure and nourishing space in which to do this kind of work.

Which brings me to my conclusion. A couple of months ago, I started bouncing in my seat when I saw that a UK group with which I’m affiliated is advocating for a Citizen’s Income: “an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship.”

People here in the US are likely to call this wacky, dangerous, socialist nonsense. Truthfully, I don’t know it is the best way forward. However, the spirit of it is what gets me excited: “an underpinning to life in which we all have sufficient security to ensure maximum freedom.”

And with that, I’m sitting here in the car repair waiting room wondering: How can we artists more effectively harness our imaginations and our capacities for empathy and compassion to find inventive ways to co-create built-environment, social and economic systems that support us in imagining and making a healthier and more equitable planet?

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