Our longer lifespan. A century ago, the average life expectancy was around 50 years. Today, the average is 78.8 years—which means that plenty of us will live into our 90s and even achieve centenarian status. But experts tell us that these bonus years may be marked by poor health and disability. It's increasingly likely that if we find ourselves needing care at age 75, we still might be caring for an elderly parent.
The changing role of women. Baby boomer women were much more likely to be employed outside the home, and they gave birth to their first child at an average later age, making them less available to serve as a full-time caregiver for an aging parent or parent-in-law.
Geographical distance. In earlier times, it was common for families to live in the same community generation after generation. Today, we are much more mobile. Families may be spread out across the country and around the world. This complicates caregiving considerably, and in many cases means that an adult child who lives nearby becomes the de facto lead caregiver as elders' needs change.
Stepfamilies. Today's higher rate of divorce and remarriage means that blended families are common—which can create quite a tangle on the family tree when it comes to caregiving! If the family blended when children were young, they may have formed a cohesive family bond, but often when parents married later in life, step siblings find themselves virtual strangers, perhaps meeting once at their parents' wedding and then not again until the need arises to focus on the older couple's health and care needs.
Families often have settled into a pattern of Inertia. Adult children and their families visit senior parents at certain times of year, help in certain ways, and connect with siblings during holidays or perhaps more often if they live nearby. Then, a health crisis strikes, or—quite often—the sibling who over time has taken on the role of primary caregiver sends out a cry for help that might surprise other members of the family and perhaps make them feel a sudden spasm of guilt. Suddenly everyone is called together, and conflicts emerge. Battleground topics include:
The right care for Mom and Dad—A daughter who lives nearby and witnesses the challenges her elder parents are facing thinks they should move to an assisted living or other supportive living situation. A visiting brother says everyone should listen to Mom and Dad, who are resisting the move and want to stay at home. No one can agree on the best course of action.
Time—When a loved one is living with disabilities, time can seem like the main challenge and source of conflict. The conversation might go like this: The primary caregiver describes the hours they're putting in to help Mom and Dad, and how their career is affected. Other members of the family counter with an explanation of their own busy schedules. Maybe it sinks in that siblings who live at a distance are going to be using all their vacation time visiting Mom and Dad for the time being.
Money—Even if everyone agrees that Mom and Dad need assistance, how will the family pay for it? One member may already be laying out quite a bit of money. Should Mom and Dad tap their nest egg? Should care costs be divided according to family’s ability to pay? Unfortunately, this is when accusations sometimes fly that a sibling is more interested in their inheritance than encouraging the parents to pay for care for themselves.
Family Dynamics If your family is on a pretty even keel, count your blessings! Not every family is harmonious. The eldercare discussion might be the first time that the family has experienced a period of proximity and intimacy in a long time—and here come the old dysfunctional patterns of communication, the long-simmering resentments and unaddressed grudges. Sometimes the meetings can resemble the Christmas dinner table where some families only see each other this once every year.