By Kevyn Burger
A decade ago, Dr. Richard Thill moved back into the family home in Anaheim, Calif. to live with his aging parents. Thill was with his mother when she died at age 102 and continues to live with his father, Elmer, who, at 104, is Anaheim’s oldest lifelong resident.
Richard, now 78, and his father both play in a Dixieland band, keep bees and tend to home repair chores. Richard is on duty with his dad, other than the two days a week when he works as a pediatric dentist.
“When I go to the office, I drop him at the senior center. He plays pool, exercises and talks to the people there,” Richard said. “My goal is to keep him home until the end. Everything I have is because of my parents.”
The Thill father-and-son team represents a newly-observed wrinkle in the demographic of aging families: very old parents with “children” who are themselves older adults.
“He sees that my bills are paid, cooks for me and keeps me going,” said Elmer, who is retired from his real estate career but still holds his broker’s license. “I say, he’s just a kid.”
A New Phenomenon with Longevity
While the dynamic is still unusual, instances of families whose intergenerational members are growing old simultaneously have become more frequent and represent new demands for caregiving.
“We’re looking at a new phenomenon with longevity that was once was almost freakish. More baby boomers still have their parents than any previous age cohort,” said Kathrin Boerner, gerontology professor at the McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “Putting these families on the map is my purpose.”
Boerner is leading the Aging Together Study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, to study these late-life relationships. Her research, which will analyze 120 parent-child families that feature a parent in his or her 90s with a child older than 65, will conclude in the next year or so.
She hopes her findings will shed light on the challenges these older families present, and will inform policymakers and support providers about their particular needs.
“There’s a huge volume of literature on caregiving, but it’s based on middle-aged family members and supports are created with them in mind,” Boerner said. “Caregivers who are much older need different community services. Right now, there’s little designed for this group.”
Boerner has long studied the very old, with previous research on centenarians. But what she’s learning in her in-depth interviews with senior parents-and-children has surprised her.
“An unexpected finding is the subgroup of old parents who are serious support providers to their children,” she said. “We’re used to upstream support, child-to-parent support, but when children are over 65, they may have significant health conditions.”
The Late Sen. McCain and His Mother
Americans had the chance to observe an aging family at the public memorials honoring Arizona Sen. John McCain, who died earlier this year a few days before his 82nd birthday.
McCain’s 106-year-old mother Roberta was photographed in the front row at his funeral gripping the hand of her granddaughter Meghan. The nation watched as the McCain family matriarch, solemn and elegant, mourned the towering figure whom she called “Johnny.”
For his part, the former Senator, presidential candidate and Prisoner of War revered his mother. In his 2005 book, Character is Destiny, McCain wrote, “My mother was raised to be a strong, determined woman who thoroughly enjoyed life, and always tried to make the most of her opportunities…I am grateful to her for the strengths she taught me by example.”
Positive and Negative Aspects of the Relationship
The quality of the lifelong parent-child bond has implications in the final stages of life, according to Boerner’s preliminary research.
“How much the relationship is perceived as a blessing depends on if it has been positive. In many families, these relationships have been difficult and remain so, and they are more likely to be viewed as a burden,” she said. “It’s quite tragic when you meet a daughter in her 70s who never had a good relationship and confides to you, ‘I thought I would have a time when I was free of this.’”
Approximately 2.5 million Americans are 90 and older, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the over 85 demographic represents the fastest growing part of the aging population. As lifespans continue to expand, so, inevitably, will the number of late-life parents with older children. These relationships are likely to shift in the future.
“My 85 someday is going to feel different than my mother’s 85 does today,” said Cynthia Hancock, gerontology undergraduate coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“When baby boomers and millennials get to the age of our oldest citizens, they will have a different experience. There will be more of us, we will live longer in retirement, we will be healthier. Our oldest citizens didn’t have fluoride in the water or vaccinations when they were growing up,” said Hancock.
Gerontologist Kerry Burnight sees the potential for “beautiful” relationships that can reduce a late-life risk factor: loneliness, which she calls a public health crisis. She notes that older parents are often the last of their tribe, outliving their siblings, spouses, friends, even other children.
“Research shows us older people who are socially isolated have a significant increase in cognitive impairment and higher risk for stroke and cardiovascular disease,” she said.
As founder and former director of the nation’s first Elder Abuse Forensic Center at University of California, Irvine, Burnight warns that that there is the potential of exploitation in some aging families.
“I don’t mean to be [negative], but after 20 years working with elder abuse, many times I saw an adult child move in largely to mooch off parents and drain their finances,” she said. “We know that financial exploitation can lead to neglect or physical abuse. There always needs to be other family members with eyes on this situation.”
The Need to Consider Impact of Dementia
With longer lifespans for women, mothers-and-daughters are the most common late-life family. The Aging Together study is deliberately broadening its search for participants.
“We’re reaching out to a variety of subjects, from different socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Boerner said. “We need to hear from sons and fathers, too. Their voices are different.”
As she arrived at the halfway point of her research, Boerner realized that she had also eliminated another type of family that is aging together.
“We designed the study for parents who are cognitively able to do an interview. In the field, I met so many senior children with parents with dementia, and their needs and stories were not part of the research.”
Boerner wrote another grant proposal to add this component to her research. She has only recently gotten word that she received additional federal funding to expand her inquiry.
“We will literally hit the ground with it in the next month,” she said. “This is one of the most challenging situations for these families and it merits study.”
For more information about participating in the study, call 617.901.1082 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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