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In our opinion: Aging without a family

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 3:35 p.m. MDT

The rising generation isn't the only generation that has to deal with the negative fallout from the disintegration of the family. (Shutterstock) The rising generation isn't the only generation that has to deal with the negative fallout from the disintegration of the family. (Shutterstock)

The devastating impact of divorce on children is well documented, and society finally seems to be taking notice of the deleterious effect that broken homes have on young people. It’s important to note, however, that the rising generation isn’t the only generation that has to deal with the negative fallout from the disintegration of the family.

A 2009 study by AARP found that approximately 43.5 million Americans are caring for someone aged 50 or older, and as the Baby Boomers retire in record numbers, that number is set to increase exponentially. By 2030, there will be twice as many Americans over 65 than there are today, and they will live far longer than their own parents. As a story in today’s Deseret News makes clear, many families are dealing with how to care for aging loved ones.

Many of these current and future senior citizens have made inadequate preparations for their golden years, which will place tremendous strain on the unsustainable entitlement programs designed as a safety net for the elderly.

Because the government will be unable to adequately provide for its senior citizens, the responsibility to care for its elders falls squarely on the family unit. Yet this unprecedented number of seniors needing care will arrive at a time when even the very concept of family is coming under fire in the culture at-large.

When the Boomers were children themselves, things were different. Back then, life expectancy wasn’t much longer than the Social Security retirement age, and Medicare didn’t exist. Yet society was able to cope because nearly all of the babies from the post-World War II generation were welcomed into intact homes with a mother and father. That’s simply not the case today.

In 2012, 4 out of 10 children were born into families without married parents, and the statistics paint a much starker picture with regard to minority populations, where almost 3 out of 4 African-American babies are born to single mothers. These families face tremendous obstacles in raising their children, but they also are ill-equipped to care for their own aging parents. The responsibility to look after one’s parents as well as one’s children often takes people by surprise, and they discover they are faced with financial, emotional, and even physical challenges they didn’t anticipate.

The result of this is increased stress for all concerned. A 2010 MetLife study determined that caring for an elderly relative can force caregivers to leave the workforce early themselves, resulting in an average of $324,044 in lost wages and Social Security benefits. Caregivers also may expect higher levels cholesterol, heart disease, hypertension, and depression, as well as increased absenteeism from their jobs. Those who find themselves stuck between looking after both their children and their parents have been labeled the “sandwich generation,” and many of them are beginning to collapse under the strain.

Certainly there are a number of things that employers can do to help accommodate workers who face these responsibilities, beginning with recognition that the problem exists. Over the years, workplaces have become more flexible in areas related to child care, but they often overlook the needs of those caring for their parents as well. In addition, governments need to address the structural flaws in retirement programs in order to keep them viable for the foreseeable future. And undoubtedly there are circumstances where outside help is absolutely essential, such as when a parent is suffering from Alzheimer’s or other severe mental and physical health problems that require the attention of a professional.

But under most circumstances, the family is the best, most reliable safety net, and families need all the support they can get.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company