I love listening to life stories. As a hospice chaplain, I loved sitting with our patients and their loved ones engaging in what many hospice teams call “life review.” When did you meet your spouse? When was Reggie born? What is your favorite holiday? When did you learn you were ill? A few simple questions and the stories come pouring forth.
Of late, I’ve been listening to the life stories of Gen X individuals whose Baby Boomer mom or dad, stepmom or stepdad, died in the fall of 2010. Each story is unique and beautiful, full of grace-filled surprises found in the midst of daily survival. As they review the life of the parent who has died through the lens of caregiving and grieving, we catch a glimpse of how the first wave of the Baby Boomers is aging and dying. The tidal wave of elderly boomers has not hit us yet, but it is coming.
According to AgingStats.gov: “The baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will start turning 65 in 2011 … The older population in 2030 is projected to be twice as large as their counterparts in 2000, growing from 35 million to 72 million and representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.”
Baby boomers will live longer and in greater numbers than ever seen before with few youngsters to support them financially and physically. What and who will ensure that the Baby Boomers have space and time to age gracefully?
The idea that our current healthcare system is less than adequate to support the needs and expectations of the “silver tsunami” of the Baby Boomers is far from new. Debates continue on how Medicare and the long-term care system need massive overhaul, so I won’t enter that minefield. My mind goes to the home. I think of how as the boomers begin to age, they will need “informal” or “family” caregivers by the thousands. “Informal caregiving” can be defined as “unpaid care given voluntarily to ill or disabled persons by their family and friends.” They assist a parent, friend or neighbor with completing normal activities of daily living ranging from driving, grocery shopping, taking medication, managing money, to even more personally vulnerable activities like bathing, dressing, using the toilet, or eating.
In past generations, a less debilitated spouse would be the primary informal caregiver, but there are a shockingly high number of single boomers. According to a recent survey of the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2015, 46% of all boomers aged 65 and above will be unmarried, creating 21 million unmarried households. For the same age group in 1985, there were only 10 million unmarried households. In an age marked by high rates of divorce, either the role of an ex-spouse will change or an adult child will be forced to step up as the primary caregiver and decision maker for an aging parent. The increased caregiving burden on the Gen X and Millenials of the future will demand creative work, family, financial, and practical solutions that just don’t exist yet.
According to the AARP, most informal caregivers provide an average of 21 hours of care per week, so basically a part-time job. They paint a picture of informal caregiving where caregivers assume responsibility for their loved one’s day to day care, triage any health care crises, absorb financial burdens big and small, and tend to underestimate how much time and how stressful being a caregiver will truly be. As a mother of three, these observations sounded a lot like caring for a toddler. It shouldn’t have surprised me then when their data showed that a typical caregiver in the US is a 46-year-old woman who works outside the home.
That sounds a lot like me and my friends in a few years — we have jobs, kids, friends, hobbies and parents — and my anxiety rises as I think about 2030. How will my life story be changing?
Rosalynn Carter once said, “There are four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”
The next 30 years will be defined by the quality of care we provide for our elders. How will the Baby Boomers age and die? How are we as their kids going to care for them well and honor their memory and legacy? What kind of lives will we review?
Amy Ziettlow blogs at Family Scholars.
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