updated 6/27/2008 2:11:13 PM ET 2008-06-27T18:11:13

A 65-year-old couple needs $85,000 on average to cover insurance costs for long-term care such as nursing home stays in retirement, according to a study to be released Thursday by Fidelity Investments.

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The finding underscores the need to financially prepare for the possibility of eventually needing assistance to get by — a burden that often falls on elders’ adult children, who can jeopardize their own finances by caring for an ailing parent while finding they must cut their work hours.

Setting aside adequate savings heading into retirement can help defuse family tensions should physical or mental illness hit parents who slowly realize they can no longer perform tasks such as household chores, or bathe or dress on their own.

“If you plan adequately and you have the ability to pay for assistance in whatever form that might be, it makes it easier on everybody if you can do that,” said Kathleen Kelly, executive director of the Family Caregiver Alliance, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps families cope with adults’ disabilities. “Families really want to do the right thing, but there are so many pressures on them.”

Fidelity, a Boston-based financial services firm whose mainstay is mutual funds, surveyed insurers offering long-term care policies to come up with the estimate that a couple aged 65 this year can expect to need $85,000 to cover annual premiums for long-term care coverage throughout retirement.

It’s the first year Fidelity has conducted the study, which supplements a survey the company completed in March estimating a couple retiring this year would need $225,000 in savings to cover medical costs in retirement. That estimate covers expenses associated with Medicare premium payments, as well as co-payments and deductibles, plus out-of-pocket prescription drug costs.

The $85,000 for long-term care insurance — which can cover costs for everything from regular visits to a home by a caregiver, to living in a nursing home — is in addition to the $225,000 for other health care needs.

The study’s goal is to get people thinking about long-term care — an unpleasant topic made more difficult by rising costs, and the growing demand for such care as baby boomers enter retirement and eventually need help caring for themselves.

“A lot of people shy away from thinking about it,” said Joan Bloom, senior vice president for Fidelity’s life insurance group, which distributes long-term care insurance issued by an unaffiliated firm, Genworth Financial.

About 5 million Americans are covered by long-term care policies, a number that has remained largely flat over the last 10 years, Bloom said. While some employers provide benefit programs offering long-term care coverage, the cost generally isn’t subsidized by employers.

Bloom recommends people consider buying long-term care insurance when they’re in their 50s. Policies generally cost less the earlier in life they’re purchased.

While someone may never end up needing long-term care, the financial hit can be hard if it is needed, with the average cost of a one-year stay in a private room at a nursing home now at more than $76,000, Bloom said.

In part because of those high costs, about three-quarters of all long-term care is provided by a family member, Fidelity says. The company’s research found about 29 million Americans informally provide long-term care to family members, spending an average 34 hours per week — or nearly a full work week.

Such a commitment can take a toll on a caregiver’s finances. A 50-year-old earning $50,000 per year who provides four years of long-term care to a family member could lose more than $140,000 in wages, retirement savings and Social Security over their lifetime, Fidelity estimates.

Such scenarios are becoming more common. By 2050, the number of Americans using paid long-term care services in any setting — at home, in assisted living, or a nursing home — is expected to double from the 13 million who used such services in 2000, to 27 million people, according to a federal estimate.

“Almost everybody I see now who is over the age of 40 or 45 has a story involving caregiving for their parents,” said Kelly, of the Family Caregiver Alliance. “If they don’t have one already, they will.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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