A sobering Mother's Day message: Today's moms will spend more years caring for their aging parents than for rearing their own children.

While child care has been the top family issue of the 1980s, elder care will gain prominence in the 1990s as America ages and women continue to join the job market, according to a report released this week by the Older Women's League. Statistically, women are much more likely than men to be the chief caregivers for both children and elderly parents.The "empty nest syndrome" - an emotional vacuum experienced by many women when their grown children leave home - will be short-lived for mothers of the baby-boom generation because the "nest" will be filled with frail parents or other relatives.

"On average, women today spend 17 years of their lives caring for children and 18 years assisting aging parents," said the report, "Failing America's Caregivers: A Status Report on Women Who Care."

"In 1989, a woman whose children are grown has completed, on average, less than half the caregiving she will provide during her life," said Lou Glasse, president of the Older Women's League or OWL. "Far from being free of responsibility, in many cases, her most difficult years lie ahead."

Demographically, the problem looms even larger for the so-called baby-bust generation that follows the much-chronicled baby boomers now in their 30s and 40s.

For the first time ever, the report said, American couples have more parents than children.

"Already, nearly 2 million women are part of the `sandwich generation,' caring simultaneously for children and parents," said Glasse. "Over the next few decades, America will have fewer caregivers, many more people who need care and more women in the paid work force with less time to give."

The OWL report was released at a Capitol Hill press conference. OWL is a self-described advocacy group focusing on "midlife and older women's concerns." The organization is lobbying for the Family andAedical Leave Act that they say would provide job protection for caregivers of children, parents and spouses.

After the press conference, women from OWL delivered Mother's Day cards and lobbyist literature to each member of Congress.

"In recent months, we have heard talk of a corporate `mommy track,' through which mothers are directed into less demanding, less rewarding jobs," said Glasse. However, in coming decades, more men and women are going to feel the double-duty pinch of caring for parents and children.

"If we aren't careful, corporate America may allow only orphans without spouses or children on the fast track to success," said Glasse.

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(Additional information)

Other findings

-Most family caregivers are women. Daughters are three times more likely than sons to end up responsible for elderly parents. Since women typically outlive men, wives more often than husbands find themselves taking care of an aged spouse.

-Elder care is even more expensive than child care. The average annual cost for child care is $3,000. Average cost for a year in a nursing home is $25,000.

-While the needs for child care and elderly care are both growing, so is the shortage of workers in both fields.