First Things First

Aging Parents and Broken Families

“In 2010, the first Baby Boomers turned 65. By 2030, 20 percent of America’s population will be over 65. As the Baby Boom generation moves into later life, the proportion of American elders who are divorced is skyrocketing,” says researcher and author Elizabeth Marquardt.  “The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2015, 46 percent of boomers will live in divorced or unmarried households. These trends raise concerns for Baby Boomers as they age – and challenges for their grown children – as they become caregivers for their aging parents.”

Marquardt and Amy Ziettlow are co-researchers in a 3-year project funded by the Lilly Endowment to investigate aging, death and dying in an era of high family fragmentation.

Marquardt and Ziettlow are asking Gen Xers about things like:

During an interview, one man said, “My parent’s cold war lasted until my dad died. Then my mom wanted me to mourn the loss of my dad with her. I had already mourned the loss of my father.”

“Married parents will do their best to protect their kids from the worst of a dying parents’ illness,” Marquardt says. “Fragmented families don’t have that luxury. In fact, many of the people interviewed talked about stepparents who don’t communicate anymore once the biological parent has passed away. Family change is not the only stressor. Longer life span, smaller family size and rapid economic changes have a ripple effect on family breakdown.

“We have never thought forward to the impact of divorce on an aging nation,” Marquardt says. “Marriage used to be ‘until death do us part.’ Now it is ‘until it doesn’t feel good anymore.’ There are people who will die a lonely death due to family fragmentation. Leaders are asking who will be taking care of the old people.”

Marquardt and Ziettlow have found there is a lot of hope with Generation X.

“There is something about telling your story,” Marquardt says. “Out of sharing tears, raw memories and family craziness there is a hope that seems to emerge. They take a deep breath and at the end seem to feel a sense of relief.”

Many of those interviewed said they agreed to do it because they wanted to honor their parent.

“The golden rule doesn’t say, ‘Do unto others as they have done to you,’” Marquardt says. “Of the Gen Xers we have interviewed, many say their only hope is to rise above what has happened to them and to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

Who will be there to take care of you when you can’t take care of yourself?

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