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Children Raising Parents: The Land Before Retirement

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We all have parents but interestingly enough, we don’t talk about them very much. At least we don’t talk about them very much in the blogosphere. For the wide variety of subjects covered, usually mom and dad only get honorable mention on their respective holidays, Mother’s and Father’s Day. Maybe our communities aren’t that close or we’re too busy focusing on more personal subjects, like relationships and why men and women are crazy different. I wanted to take a break from the usual rigmarole. Today I want to talk about what happens when children have to start raising our parents?

Honestly, the idea for this post didn’t come from my own family. As I mentioned before, my father got sick, but he recovered outside of the hospital. The idea actually originated from a story a close friend was telling me about the difficulty of coping with his father’s heart attack.  While he eventually made a full recovery, there was a brief period during the recovery phase where he was essentially incapacitated. He could still talk and move, but it required assistance. My friend, fighting to choke out the words without breaking down, told me that two of the most difficult things he had to do during that time was 1) remain strong while others grew increasingly weak under the toll it took on the family; and 2) support his father while he was physically weak.

This is not to say he wasn’t ready or did not successfully embrace this role despite the difficulties of doing so. I’m pointing this out because it is a role that he, like most people, never thought he would have to face. The day when his father – and his family – would rely on him for support instead of the other way around.

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Many of us ignore the subject because it’s difficult to talk about; however, the fact of the matter is we are supposed to outlive our parents. What many of us fail to consider, our parents included, is what happens in that period between our parents growing old and their inability to provide for themselves independently? Many of us have only had to cope with this reality in the form of our grandparents. As we grow older, unfortunately, more and more people will face situations similar to my friend’s experience. Just as we relied on our parents for physical, emotional, and financial support in our youth, as they age, they may in turn become emotionally, physically, or financially dependent on us as young adults. If you’re married, this situation may arise up to four different times – and that’s only including the immediate family.

In America, we haven’t adapted the multi-generational household structure. You rarely see a multi-generational family choosing to live under one roof in this country. Instead, the unspoken agreement usually goes: kids grow up and move out and parents get old and move into a smaller place or assisted living (if they can afford it). Only when a medical emergency comes up does anyone confront what happens to mom, dad, grandma and grandpa when they can no longer care for themselves. This reality is made even worse when you consider almost half of Americans don’t even save for retirement.

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Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day.

…..

To maintain living standards into old age we need roughly 20 times our annual income in financial wealth. If you earn $100,000 at retirement, you need about $2 million beyond what you will receive from Social Security. If you have an income-producing partner and a paid-off house, you need less. This number is startling in light of the stone-cold fact that most people aged 50 to 64 have nothing or next to nothing in retirement accounts and thus will rely solely on Social Security. – Source: NY TIMES.

I’ll be the first to admit that thinking about death, especially our parents, is a scary proposition. Ignoring the problem, however, is not a solution. Because of the situation our family faced, I had an uncomfortably frank conversation about death and old age with my own father. He asked to be placed in assisted living or a retirement home when the time came. I asked him why, and he responded, “I don’t want to be a burden.” Even when he wasn’t being a burden at all, this is the attitude my father has always had. At the time, I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t want to imagine a life without my parents in it. I’ve been saving (likely not enough) for retirement since my mid-20s. However, I’ve only been saving for my own retirement and until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to what would happen if my parents (or eventually my wife’s parents) needed to depend on me physically or financially. Honestly, I still don’t know how to address the issue.

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Is supporting your parents physically or financially been a situation you or a friend has had to face? How did you/they cope? Do you have a plan – financial or otherwise – for addressing such a situation? Do you expect to provide for you parents during retirement and are you saving enough for your own retirement? What will be your expectation for your own children in their role in supporting you at an elderly age?

Comment(16)

  1. This is an immensely tough subject on many levels so congratulations on tackling it. I’d like to add a couple of thoughts to the mix.

    The idea of multi-generational homes definitely needs to be revisited. The children don’t suffer as many emotional and financial shocks as their parent’s health decline when they are in the house and witness that decline gradually. Instead, we put ourselves into a position where we wait for that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night. We also often don’t have the kind of money that other communities have so, when we require our children to leave the house at eighteen, they hit the ground running but end up in a position to save less and struggle more as they try to live up to a paradigm that doesn’t fit their financial circumstances.

    Many mothers in our community are single-mothers. When the children move out, the mothers are often left alone. Now I know that some women want to live alone but many don’t and just have no choice in the matter. I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve become a society that accepts leaving our mothers alone, especially as they get older.

    The other problem is that the responsibility of parental support too often falls only on the shoulders of the daughters. In the past this wasn’t so because families were more intact but now we have a situation where women (especially in the black community) will unfortunately end up care-taking children or parents alone for the bulk of their lives. This is another reason we need to take a serious look at the men in our communities. The collapse of so many (too many) men in the black community is having devastating repercussions far beyond relationships and it has become clear that they are needed for the entire community to thrive. We need to be able to protect our current generation of families in order to better be able to protect the past generation.

    1. "The collapse of so many (too many) men in the black community is having devastating repercussions far beyond relationships and it has become clear that they are needed for the entire community to thrive."

      Applause…

  2. In my experience it's the inverse, parents are still taking care of their kids into their mid 20s (even 30s in a few cases). One would hope that 10 years down the line those people will turn around and then help their parents, My father and his fiance are both in their early 50s and have been stacking away for the golden years and barring something unforeseen will be alright. Thinking about it, it would probably be my older sister or me if need be, she's the nurturer, i'm the responsible one. Myself I'd hope to be well off enough to not need support, financially or physically, as i'm sure most do, Whether it was a dorm, room, or apartment i've pretty much been on my own since 18 i would hate to be someone's burden down the line.
    My recent post Today’s Word is… GOODBYE

  3. The elders in my family are too strong and independent…and unwilling to live with their children/grandchildren.

    My maternal grandmother and her siblings gave up their homes and relocated back to VA to live on family property together…5 went, 2 have since gone to sleep. My Gma still drives (she'll be 75 in December). My oldest great-aunt down there is 83. They live off the sale of their homes, SSA, retirement, and IRAs…and one of my aunts get money from her children every month. I have one great-aunt who opted to live in a retirement home (really nice place). My other greats are still married and living in their homes with their spouses. My paternal grandparents are still married and in their home as well. When we had a bad storm here recently, they went and stayed in a hotel rather than staying with their son or grands…mind you, we ALL had power and homes, smh. They don't want to move. They don't want to feel dependent.

    1. I'm not sure what my parents (my Mom and 3 Dads – 2 step, 1 bio) have in mind. But, if widowed, Mom will be with me…she has no choice, lol. Considering my elders though, I think my parents will want to do their own thing.

      I'm not sure what I want. But, I shonuff tell my boys that one will have to take their Dad and the other will have to take me cause I didn't divorce him to live with him in my old age, LMBO! Not happening!

      1. But, I shonuff tell my boys that one will have to take their Dad and the other will have to take me cause I didn’t divorce him to live with him in my old age, LMBO! Not happening!

        I didn’t even think about this. Yeah that would be comic and tragic at the same damn time. I’m young and don’t like dealing with people I don’t like, I can only imagine the attitude Id have if I had to do so when I’m old. Mannn listen…

  4. Tough topic. My dad was in an assisted care facility before he passed. That was out of necessity. Fortunately, with pension, etc. from working for state, their was minimal financial impact on the family. Both my grandmother's lived at their respective homes (not facilities) up until the point they passed. I've come to expect the same for my mom, but obviously that isn't guaranteed. Kinda scary to think otherwise. I don't have any time of plan in my place, but this post is making me think that I should.

    In terms of my own children, I don't know what I'd want. I'll have to ruminate on that.

    My recent post Three Reasons Why You Should Have a Blog

  5. As with the general consensus, this is a heavy topic. It’s tough to think about the mortality of our parents, especially when we’ve always seen them mostly independent. I recently had to take my mom fora procedure, and i realized in that moment, she’s getting older. It used to be a time she’d not even tell me about some medical procedures. Having to take her was a tacit acknowledgment by her that she needed me. Even seeing my father have a hitch in his walk now, whereas before he’d run up and down the court was a eye-opener for me.

    My mother has already said she wants to go into an assisted-living facility. I haven’t had that.discussion with my father, so I wonder how it’s going to go.

    The communal aspect that was touched on, will become more prevalent as the babyboomers, and children of babyboomers continue to age also. It’s a discussion that needs to take place quickly, and in a frank and honest manner.

  6. My mother and I would discuss this topic throughout my life, but in a manner that wasn't morbid. We discussed how I would care for my parents as they aged since I am an only child. I even joked that I would put them together since they are divorced to torture them (as a joke) ala cynicaloptmst81 comment.

    But my mother and I had a frank conversation about the plans for her when she was diagnosed with cancer. I wasn't rasied in a multi generation household, but when my maternal grandfather was ill, and her brother when it was his time, there was no question that they would stay with us (my mom and I). Being raised with the rock of the family who took care of other family members in their time of need I never questioned our plans becuase it was always established that my mother or whomever would stay with me. Its just how I was raised

    (please excuse me if I had several typos/errors – my first comment on the blog)

  7. Thank you for this post. For those of us who've already lost one parent and find ourselves caring for the other parent at a younger age than most, it's much appreciated to see it being discussed on forum like this. Don't assume it won't happen to you. You never know when your parent's time is, or when serious health problems will arise. I've dealt with both issues, via losing one parent, and seeing the other get progressively sicker, in just the last 2.5 years (and I'm in my very early 30s), and before that I was spoiled and thought (as many do) that it would be many years before I'd have to consider these things. Just food for thought. Thanks again!

  8. In elementary school I told my ma I'd put her in a retirement home and her face was a mix of the death stare and genuine shock. Mind you at the time I didn't realize that the multi-generational household structure was real in the Haitian culture. My ma cares for my grandma and I know plenty of Haitians who do the same. On the other hand, my bestfriends' grandmother lives with one of her aunts and they're Black.

    My ma always talks about how she'd move into a nice retirement home (I always wonder if she forgot about that conversation or…) but I honestly think she just doesn't want to be a burden to anyone. This is the same lady who had to be told, "ma…let 'em do their job, you're paying for this" when she was in the ER and the nurses were trying to care for her. Anyways, I'm her only child so I feel like it's my duty. It's the least I can do since she cared for me, right? Being the over analyzer that I am, this is one of the "what ifs" I always think about, especially since we're both getting older.

    You do bring up a great point about financial stability though…one more thing to save up for when I graduate and get a career. I usually lurk, but this topic hit home.

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