As I prepared for Christmas Eve dinner this year with my family, I couldn't help reflecting how different it was from the year before.
The day was a pleasant whirlwind of activity that started at the crack of dawn as I organized some last-minute gifts, started the Buche de Noel, ran the dog, woke my three pre-teen kids, and prepped the beef for dinner, all the while discreetly glancing at my Blackberry to make sure there was nothing urgent brewing on the work front.
The day ended with my extended family, including my mother, cousins and several dear friends, grouped around the fire reading Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" aloud by candle light, a tradition started by my father in the 1970s.
That's the way I love Christmas, and that's the way it's been most of my life.
But not last year. Last year, in the days before the holiday, I was at the hospital bedside of my father, who had fallen six weeks earlier and was unaware that it was Christmas, much less the year 2009. He passed away on December 23, and I caught a late flight home that left me exhausted and stricken — and not quite up to the task of making Christmas magical.
Looking back at the holiday season, I can't help thinking of those who experienced it as I did last year — frantically trying to balance the needs of career, children with the needs of aging parents.
In the '80s, Redbook magazine ran a famous ad campaign that referred to its readers as "jugglers." At the time, they were attempting to ennoble the complicated lives of women who were pulled in all directions by the still-new options available to them — a love life, babies, career — why not have it all? The novelty wore off by the '90s, as "juggling" became simply a given. Looking ahead to the twenty-teens, there's going to be another layer of crushing responsibility landing squarely on the shoulders of boomers — particularly boomer women.
That responsibility is eldercare.
Caring for aging parents threatens to cripple an already over-tasked boomer population. There are currently 40 million Americans over the age of 65, roughly 20 percent of our population. Of those, close to 10 million live alone in single family homes, and more than a third report physical limitations preventing them from performing basic activities.
No one likes to think about these things. But, ready or not, we boomers will be their caregivers. According to a recent study by Compsych, 34 million Americans already provide unpaid care to an elderly relative, and those numbers are only going to go up.
We have to care for family members for two reasons. First, because we honor our parents and we want to give back to the ones who cared for us. Second, because we can't afford not to. Assisted living facilities average $200 per day, and home care aids cost $30 per hour. By some estimates, these costs will double by 2020.
And we boomers haven't exactly done a good job saving money. We grew up with easy credit, and many of us used our homes as ATMs. Here's a scary statistic: Twenty-five million boomers — nearly one third of us — have less than $1,000 in net assets.
My father died peacefully six weeks after his fall last year. We were all by his bedside and were able to say our goodbyes to a man we loved enormously and admired deeply. He was lucky to have a full life and then to depart from it rapidly (and relatively painlessly), surrounded by family.
And now my siblings and I are thinking about how to look out for our 81-year-old mother — fiercely independent, fit enough to run a marathon, and not in need of household help (at least, not according to her!) But if she fell from the chair while changing a lightbulb, she could break a hip, and could easily end up on the floor for days, as her dear friend did.
We are forced to think these gruesome thoughts, not because we want to, but because we must. Humans grow up; they mature, bear children (sometimes), age, decline and die. This is not gloom and doom. This is just the way it is.
They teach sex ed in junior high school, but no one teaches young people about aging, no one teaches young people what it takes to care for an elderly relative in decline.
If we're to face the coming caregiving crisis, brought on by longer lifespans and a growing ratio of oldsters to youngsters, our society is going to have to face up to reality — which means a more open discussion of aging and the needs of the older population, better education about caregiving, and a creative approach to finding workable solutions.
Liddy Manson is President of BeClose.com, a tech startup that sells monitoring systems for remote caregiving.