Recently I saw this question posed on Answerbag.com: Why do some cultures venerate their elders and some don't?
A couple of people had posted responses. They blamed the loss of reverence for senior citizens on things like industrialization and increased longevity. One suggested that expecting the young to value their elders is like expecting a drunk to value sobriety.
Is American culture so intoxicated by youth that we’re incapable of respecting a segment of society that is universally hailed in other parts of the world?
And why does a 35-year-old woman like me care?
(MORE: You Gave, Now Save: Help For Low-Income Americans Over 60)
It's not because I’ve noticed stray wrinkles and a few gray hairs in the last few years and watched my modest 401(k) statements spike and dip. Most of my peers have experienced these things. But I’m way ahead of the curve in one respect:
I’m a Gen X caregiver. So is my Gen X sister, Sara.
Gen X Caregivers
I'm part of a secret society of women and men in their 30s and early 40s whose mothers and/or fathers have suffered early-onset dementia, a debilitating accident or stroke, or, like my 65-year-old mom, a complex set of physical and mental illnesses that our health-care industry is ill-equipped to handle. (My mom is a divorced former Hebrew School teacher who had difficulty holding down jobs due to her illness.)
As caregivers, Sara and I have been doing our best to help our mom, usually with no reference point or support structure. For us, the process of finding affordable and dignified care for her has been a game of chutes and ladders—with precious stakes and a ticking clock.
The High Cost of Caregiving Missteps
Every misstep we’ve made has led to more bureaucratic red tape, emotional exhaustion and mounting expenses. When the cost of our mom’s care peaked a few years ago, it was running $11,000 a month.
Despite my age, in many ways I’m typical of today’s informal caregivers.
I don’t live with my mom; she's in an assisted living/nursing facility in Maryland and I live in a Brooklyn apartment. I don’t distribute her dozen-plus daily medications or feed and bathe her. Instead, I manage a crew who I hope will provide her with dignified care.
I’m also typical of many caregivers because I failed to tackle eldercare planning and research preemptively. Consequently, I experienced the nightmare of having a parent simultaneously collide with health care, housing and financial crises.
Through the thick of my mom’s difficulties, my sister and I realized that everyone we knew around our age was in denial about the impact of aging on the physical, financial and emotional health of their parents and themselves.
(MORE: Dividing Family Caregiving Costs Without Splitting the Family)
The Veneration Project
So we launched The Veneration Project, an in-person and online initiative challenging younger generations to communicate, plan and innovate with their families and communities in response to the challenges and opportunities of aging.
Currently, we’re focusing on two areas:
Information Management There are thousands of resources and services dealing with the legal, financial, social and emotional aspects of aging. But each one is usually just one piece of a mammoth puzzle.
So we’ve developed a simple information-management system on our site, a compilation of existing resources. We’re hoping it will raise awareness and help start filling in the gaps for caregivers.
We’re also working with community-based organizations in New York City to roll out a series of workshops about legal, financial, housing and health-care planning for caregivers.
Housing We may not want to think about our parents getting old and dying, but we do need to think about where they’re going to live as they age.
(MORE: Is Extending Our Parents’ Lives Heroic or Cruel?)
Most people 60 and older are homeowners who prefer to remain in their homes as long as possible. Typically, these dwellings share two traits: 1) They represent the family’s major asset; 2) They’re ill-equipped for the needs of older residents.
Thinking about what’s going to happen to those homes down the road is one of the keys to our parents’ long-term economic security. But navigating the housing decisions that caregivers and their parents will need to make—and choreographing the transition—is so complicated it can be nearly paralyzing.
The Veneration Project is now working on a pilot program, a roaming clinic in Brooklyn that will bring together local specialists in legal and financial planning, social work and real estate.
Please check out The Veneration Project’s site. If you’re aware of any good resources that we’re missing, let us know. Want to share a personal story? Send it our way. And if you’d like to support our programs or help develop a new one, please get in touch.
We’re all in this together.