Boomerang Seniors and Aging Parents

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Like many peers in their 70’s, Lois and Richard Jones of Media, Pa., sold their home and downsized, opting for an apartment in a nearby senior living community they had come to know well. For 13 years, they have visited Lois’ mother, Madge Wertzberger, there.

Wertzberger, 95, is in assisted living at Granite Farms Estates. Lois, 73, and Richard, 76, who have been married 56 years, moved into an adjoining building in October 2016.

“It doesn’t take me more than three minutes to walk to where my mother is,” said Lois. “I don’t have to drive anywhere to help her or to meet with her [medical] team. I’m right here.”

The Joneses are great-grandparents. Yet they’re among a growing group of seniors with a living parent, which means these 21st-century post-retirement years might well include parental care. Expectations are altered amid the new reality of longer life expectancy and growing numbers of aged Americans.

“I pop in when I need to take something to her or discuss things. We see each other minimally once a week, and it can be more,” Jones said. “My youngest sister normally takes her to the doctor, but I do some sharing on that. Just because I’m here doesn’t mean I have to take her to her doctor’s appointments.”

Caregiving for an older family member is not what it was when first studied and coined as the “sandwich generation,” those people squeezed between aging parents and young children, said Amy Horowitz, a professor of social work at Fordham University in New York City.

“Now it’s the children who are on the verge of retirement or who have retired and are still having the responsibility of older parents,” she said. “In New York City, I know someone whose almost-90-year-old mother is living in the same apartment building. It becomes, how do you balance your own life?”

Kathrin Boerner, an associate professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, discovered a recurring theme in her research on centenarians and their adult children — that is, very old parents and their elderly children. Even if their children are not direct caregivers, they still must monitor their parents’ welfare.

“With the demographics we’re looking at, I refer to it as ‘aging together,’ — the parent-child constellation will be a lot more frequent,” Boerner said.

“For a lot of people, that is the time — if you’re in good enough health — you hope for a time of greater freedom. You’re past all the other caregiving tasks and, for most people, they can dedicate to their own needs,” Boerner said. “But for those with very old parents, it just doesn’t happen.”

“The very old are the fastest-growing segment of the population in most developed countries, with an expected increase of 51% of elders age 80+ between 2010 and 2030.” And, two-thirds of these very old have advanced-aged children, who typically serve as their primary caregiver.

“We heard things from someone like an 80-year-old — ‘I don’t have a life.’ Imagine that. You’re 80 years old, and ‘I don’t have a life because I’m caring for my mother,’” Boerner said.

Sometimes, it’s the older adult child with more health issues than the parent.

Carol Pali, 71, moved into Fort Washington Estates in Fort Washington, Pa., in October 2014, prompted by a blood disease diagnosis, around the same time she retired from full-time teaching.

“It got to a point where I was in and out of the hospital all the time,” she said. “I just decided I might as well move in here, too. It’s better than having to take care of the house.”

Pali had lived in a townhouse around the corner from the community, where her mother, Peg Henrys, who recently turned 97, had moved three years earlier.

“My mom moved from New Jersey to be closer to me,” she said.

“We get to see each other every day at dinner time, but she’s got her life here and I’ve got mine. We’re not with each other all the time,” Pali said.

“She’s in better shape than I am except that she can’t hear very well,” Pali said. 


Jones said she and her two sisters (one lives 10 minutes away; the other, 40 minutes away) have a weekly knitting date with their mother.

“We all knit and spend a good portion of the day with her,” Jones said of the Thursday sessions.

She also stays busy with Bible study, church services and programs featuring professors from local colleges — all on-site.

“We have joined in so many of the activities here,” she said. “We have a whole new social group. There are a lot of activities we participate in here at Granite Farms, but we haven’t given up our outside friends or activities.”

Jones said she and her husband sought to escape from the worries associated with a larger home and assume control over their future while they could. Living near her mother lets them blend caregiving with a relatively carefree lifestyle.

“We were looking to exchange responsibility for fun,” she said.

Alone and Aging: A Safety Net For Seniors

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lady-sitting-in-loungerElizabeth knows what she should do, but like many of her peers, the 71-year-old does not exactly know how to approach a casual acquaintance and ask who will take care of her when she needs it most. 

Living in Austin, Texas, Elizabeth is among a growing number of seniors who find themselves alone just when aging and end-of-life care becomes real.

Unmarried, with no children, her younger sister, by seven years, passed away in 2014. Elizabeth’s social network is limited to a handful of work colleagues and a few acquaintances.

“I’m very fearful of reaching that place in my life when I really need help and possibly cannot take care of myself,” she said. “I may have no one to be there for me.”

Elizabeth represents a universe that has come to be known among geriatric specialists as “elder orphans” — seniors with no relatives to help them deal with physical and mental health challenges. Their rising numbers prompted the American Geriatrics Society in November 2016  to unveil guidelines for a segment of these older adults who can no longer make their own medical decisions and have no designated surrogates. The nonprofit dubbed them “unbefriended” and called for a national effort to help prevent a surge among incapacitated seniors who face a health crisis and do not have a decision maker.

Single seniors have always existed, but demographic and social changes have slowly transformed aging America. In 1900, average life expectancy was 47. Now, the combination of increased longevity, the large and graying baby boom generation, the decline in marriage, the rise in divorce, increased childlessness and family mobility has upended the traditional caregiving support system.

Among the indicators:

— A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report this year shows the number of Americans older than 100 years old increased almost 44 percent between 2000 to 2014.

— Twenty-two percent of people over age 65 are — or risk becoming — elder orphans, according to a 2015 study by New York geriatrician Maria Torroella Carney.

— A U.S. Census report from 2014 projected by 2050 the 65 and older population to be 83.7 million — almost double the 2012 estimate of 43.1 million.

— The nonprofit Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C., reported earlier this year that family members provide more than 95 percent of informal care for older adults who are not in nursing homes.

“Americans are spending less time than ever in the married state,” said Susan Brown  of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which “raises questions about who is going to care for these people as they age and experience health declines.”

Reference Bureau demographer Mark Mather said the combination of aging boomers and family dislocation is creating “a potential caregiving crisis or at least major challenges down the road.”

The oldest boomers are now 70. With more on the horizon, the impact of smaller family size will become more pronounced: Baby boomers generally had fewer children than previous generations and significant numbers are childless, said demographer Jonathan Vespa, of the United States Census Bureau.

“As people have fewer children, there are naturally fewer people in that next generation to help take care of the older generation,” he said.

New 2015 U.S. Census data also reflects more elders who live alone — 42.8 percent of those 65 and older. Yet new twists have emerged, such as cohousing, in which people live independently in housing clusters with a common building for meals and socializing. Such thinking, said gerontologist Jan Mutchler, of the University of Massachusetts Gerontology Institute in Boston, suggests a “shift [in] the way people are thinking about who can I rely on and who is going to be there for me.”

Katie, 77, spent much of her working life in San Antonio or New York, finally retiring to California five years ago. Katie and her friends daydream about “having these little houses around the spoke of a wheel and at the center have a nurse and a good chef.”

Mary, 85, is an unmarried only child with no children. She has lived on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands for 51 years, where she developed a close group of “extremely supportive friends.” Most, she said, are five to fifteen years younger, which proved important in January 2016 when she had open heart surgery.

“That was it,” she said, noting she never again talked about future care. “Now that I am feeling so much better, I try to keep away from discussing that kind of stuff.”

It’s a mindset of aging boomers that Mutchler [gerontologist] knows well. “People in general avoid planning for unpleasant things,” she said. “Many people do not have wills or think about longer term recovery and custodial care needs.”

Timothy Farrell,  a physician and associate professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City who worked on the new policies, said he would “regularly encounter patients with no clear surrogate decision maker.”

The guidelines include “identifying ‘non-traditional’ surrogates — such as close friends, neighbors, or others who know a person well.”

Boosting social ties among elders is part of a national campaign launched in November 2016 by the the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, a nonprofit. The aim is to combat loneliness.




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A couple recently paid their annual long-term care annual premium. For the two of them, she is age 59 and he is age 64, they paid almost $3,500. Sounds like a lot for a year’s worth of insurance, especially for two people who are on the verge of retirement. Right?

But then, they are reminded of a friend who celebrated her 100th birthday last December. There’s a woman for whom good retirement planning has been very important. Myra loves fun and is already planning her 101st birthday party, but she can’t do it by herself. She lives in a pleasant condo with help from two health care providers, one or the other of whom are with her most of the time.

Until a year or so ago, Myra got by with less assistance, but since she was in an automobile accident, she needs more help getting dressed, bathing, etc.

The total annual bill for this kind of assistance in the city where Myra lives is close to $100,000.

If Myra chose a nice nursing home instead, the bill would be about the same. But she would rather be independent and in her own home – just like most people would.

So, when looked at it this way, the couple’s long-term care insurance bill doesn’t seem like very much and they realize that it’s probably a small price to pay for good reliable care and help when needed.

Since the burden of family caregiving almost always falls on women, long-term care, or lack of it, can have a big impact on retirement finances. If part of a couple’s retirement plan relies on a younger wife continuing to work, the illness of the older husband can be a significant financial and physical burden.

Long-term care insurance that replaces her income or allows her to hire someone else to help with the caregiving so she can work, can be especially important.