What Do We 'Owe' Our Parents?
A new survey looks at the way we feel about our role in our parents' lives as they age
Talk about a hot-button issue. With almost 6 million Americans 85 or older, a number expected to jump up to more than 14 million by 2040, our country is struggling to provide adequate care.
Last June, More magazine conducted a nationwide survey of 751 men and women 18 and older with the hopes of giving some definition and parameters to this situation. In their September issue, they published the results of this enlightening study.
If you could reduce the findings to one sentence, it would be that most Americans (81 percent) plan to help care for their aging parents. That’s the good news. But the not-so-good news is that more than a quarter said they didn’t know what was involved or how to plan for it. (Obviously they’re not reading NextAvenue.)
(MORE: How to Care for Your Parent Without Losing Your Job)
How Will We Care for Mom and Dad?
The survey also found that men are more optimistic about eldercare than women are. “The reason men have a more positive attitude is that a lot of them take a can-do approach to family life,” noted Lisa Gwyther, director of the Family Support Program at Duke University Center for the Study of Aging. “They view it as ‘This is a problem to be solved; I can fix this.’ Women may be more aware of grief, sadness and loss, as well as how the burden of eldercare is affecting them.”
Many experts also feel there could be a “perception vs. reality” gap. They note that women still do the bulk of the work. As More reported, women tend to “assume an emotional, nurturing role and handle personal tasks such as bathing, while men take on more practical chores, like handling finances or house repairs.”
It’s not that women aren’t willing to take on financial responsibility. It’s just that across every age group they don’t always have the means, or the confidence in their financial future, to make the offer.
Another question the survey asked was what people would be willing to give up to care for their parents. The findings: daily lifestyle, 55 percent (60 percent women, 50 percent men); big-ticket items like car, vacations, electronics: 38 percent; retirements savings: 23 percent; value of own home: 15 percent; children’s education fund: 7 percent.
But the question that really got me thinking — and feeling and projecting into my own life — was about motivation: why the respondents would act the way they said they would. Almost half (46 percent) said it was out of a sense of duty, a quarter (26 percent) said out of love, and 11 percent said they felt it was their moral obligation.
(MORE: How to Be a Loving Advocate for Your Parents)
What Do You Feel You Owe Your Parents?
Among my peers, conversations about our parents are frequent, but interestingly, the question “what do we ‘owe’ them” has never come up. So when I heard about the More survey, I reached out to a number of them to hear their thoughts.
A younger friend with still-robust, independent parents doesn’t feel any sense of debt. “But I want to give them love and friendship and all the support that I can give them (and that they are willing to accept from me).” Her story is complicated by the fact that her folks, who live 3,000 miles away, are fundamentalist Christians and she’s gay.
A very family-oriented friend in her early 60s, who was a full-time caregiver after her mother’s dementia made independent living impossible, never felt there was an option. “I brought her up to New York from Florida when it became clear she couldn't manage on her own after my father's death," she says. "Even though she was in assisted living and then Alzheimer's care, taking caring of her took over my life for seven years. I was never away for longer than four or five days tops that whole time. But I felt I had to do it. There was no line in the sand. It was just what a daughter does.”
Does she have any regrets today or, in hindsight would she have done anything differently? “I resented it,” she admits. “But I would not have done anything differently. It was what I had to do.”
A 47-year-old male friend left his comfortable life in Florida (and on-again, off-again girlfriend) to return to his Italian-Catholic parents’ home in Upstate New York to support them and provide small daily acts of caregiving.
He cooks for them, takes them to appointments, helps out around the house — all of which is greatly appreciated, but it has taken a heavy toll on his life. He hasn’t dated in three years because of the arrangement, has gotten out of shape and, because he’s got a front-row seat to what he considers their poor lifestyle habits, he anguishes over them 24/7.
Why does he give so much? "My parents gave me life and supported me at every turn," he says. "They always made me feel special and loved and wanted. They spent massive amounts of money sending me to top schools and supporting me financially during some rough spots. Now that they are old and in ill health, all I want to do is give something back, ease their discomfort, make sure they're not scared about their next phase. The trick is finding the balance to start my own family while helping the best way I can.”
A mid-50s woman who lost her 90-year-old mother earlier this year told me, “I don't think you owe your parents anything. I think everyone has to decide for themselves. No matter what you decide is right, your parent might need more and then what do you do? And when you and your siblings have vastly different ideas of how much care they want to give to the parent, it's difficult! These are unanswerable questions.
(MORE: How to Care for Parents With Your Siblings)
“In hindsight,” she adds, “I do I wish I had never gotten exasperated with my mother for showing her age. It was difficult with her hearing, since she was so resistant to getting and then wearing hearing aids. But when her memory faltered ever so slightly after she turned 90, there was no good reason why I should have said to her so frequently, ‘Remember?’ in a slightly accusing tone.”
Finally, a 50-year-old German-born friend (whom I met through my mother in Florida) says she has “a natural desire to help my parents, it's the normal thing to do. But that's mostly because they brought me up that way. We are just naturally there for each other.”
She sacrificed a lot of personal time when her mother was ill and eventually died, and now is trying to find a better balance with her stubborn but “totally adorable” father. Ultimately, she says, there’s something at least as important as giving time, physical care, a place to stay or even money.
“I think the one thing we really owe our parents is respect,” she said. “That is very easy with parents like yours and mine. It is much harder for many other people, especially when there are old family wounds, or the parents are otherwise abusive. I should add that I used to be really worried about having to take care of someone (my parents or my husband, who’s 15 years my senior).
“But my current philosophy is to not worry about the future and simply try to accept what is. It is hard to unlearn the bad habits of wanting to control everything and fighting whatever is going on. I still have a loooong way to go. But knowing where I want to get to helps immeasurably.”