Having children has never provided a guarantee of emotional and physical support in later life, but nevertheless, family is always the first line of defense for anyone who needs help to have a safe and comfortable life. As the baby boom generation moves into the last decades of life, those of us without children will need to take a hard look at what we might need and who will be there to help us.
Taking a peek at what adult children today are doing for their aging parents is a great way to better understand what our own needs will be in later life. Let’s take a look at two stories that give us a good example of how adult children are helping their aging parents:
Mary, who is 63, has a 93-year-old mother, Virginia, who still lives in the two-story house in which Mary grew up. Mary has a good job and many friends in another state and has no plans to uproot her life to move back to her hometown. Although they are on good terms today, Mary and Virginia had a rocky relationship in the past, and a little of the old animosity remains. When Virginia was in her late eighties, Mary tried to convince her to sell the large home and move into a retirement community, but Virginia was unwilling to move. Mary visits as often as her demanding job will allow, but her trips are still fewer than once a month.
About five years ago, Mary was able to convince her mother to pay for some modifications to her home. Mary and Virginia interviewed contractors together, ultimately hiring a local construction company to enlarge a bathroom, install grab bars, erect a ramp from the front door to the street level walkway, and reinforce a railing on the interior stairs. Virginia insisted that climbing the stairs to her bedroom each night was “good exercise,” and Mary was unable to convince her otherwise.
As an alternative to more frequent visits, Mary has taught her mother to use Skype on her computer. Skype allows Mary to monitor her mother’s facial expressions and get a look at the kitchen where Virginia keeps her computer. Mary always asks to see the pill bottles and watches her mother take her medication.
Though still mentally sharp, Virginia knows she doesn’t do as good a job managing her finances as she once did, so she allows Mary to help her remotely once a month. They go online together and pay the bills on the bank’s website. This generally takes them about an hour because Virginia has lots of questions and tends to forget from one month to the next how the system works.
To Mary’s great relief, Virginia has remained active in her church and in her bridge club. Members of both groups visit her regularly and often bring her food she can heat and eat for several days. Mary has also arranged for a young woman to come in three times a week to do some light housekeeping.
Lisa’s mother, Alice, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was 74. Since Lisa’s father had died two years earlier and her brother was a barely-functioning alcoholic, Lisa was left to see her mother through the debilitating disease. For a couple of years, Alice lived on her own in a large, age-restricted mobile home park in Palm Springs, California. She had long-time friends and neighbors there who checked on her and reported back to Lisa if there was a problem. Lisa was a three-hour drive away, so she and her mother stayed in touch by phone.
After those first two years, Lisa grew increasingly uneasy with her mother’s living alone, especially since Alice was no longer driving and had to depend on friends for rides to doctor appointments and shopping. Lisa found herself spending most weekends in Palm Springs. The six-hour round trip was exhausting and took a toll on Lisa’s own family and job.
The following spring, Lisa decided to move Alice into assisted living with memory care in Palm Springs. She used the proceeds from the sale of her mother’s mobile home to finance the move. Lisa chose to keep her mother in familiar surroundings and near her doctors rather than move her closer to her own home in suburban Los Angeles. However, the move further isolated Alice from her old friends and neighbors, which put Lisa front and center as the only support person in her mother’s life.
Although she knew her mother was safe in assisted living, Lisa continued to spend most weekends in Palm Springs, taking Alice out for meals, supplying her with her favorite snacks, picking up medications, buying her clothing and shoes, and talking to her about things she was still able to remember from the past.
After five years, the round-trip journey became too hard, both emotionally and physically. Lisa finally made the decision to move her mother once more, this time to an assisted living facility nearer to her own home.
Today, Lisa is 65 and Alice is 88. After 14years with the disease, Alice no longer recognizes Lisa, but that hasn’t stopped Lisa from visiting, staying in touch with her doctors, and checking with the staff in the memory care unit to find out what her mother needs. Lisa continues to act as her mother’s support system, staying in touch with the staff, and visiting as often as she is able.
Similar stories are playing out everywhere today with parents who are aging in their homes and in retirement communities with limited services. Even in residential care communities, substantial involvement by adult children is evident. In 2010, a national study found 90% of men and women in nursing homes and assisted living communities experienced regular and frequent visits by loved ones. The casual observer in a nursing home or assisted living community can see immediately that these visits are overwhelmingly from children and grandchildren. Adult children play a significant role in the lives of their aging parents. In fact, adult children are sometimes the only source of emotional support available to the aging parent, especially one who has isolated himself or herself from community contacts or has a life-limiting disease.
The current cohort of aging parents are composed of the two generations preceding the Baby Boomers. Will there be a different picture in 2040, when boomers are the ones in their eighties and nineties? One in five of us will be solo agers with no adult children to provide the kind of emotional, physical, and logistical support that Lisa and hundreds of thousands of others are doing today.
Intergenerational relationships are something people with children take for granted. This is less often the case for those without children, who may never have gotten close to anyone outside their own age group unless they come from large, tight-knit families. In order to fully understand what child-free people will need later in life, we need to consider the great variety of roles adult children play in their aging parents’ lives.
In my articles this month, I will expand on those roles and discuss ways solo agers can prepare to fill the gaps.