Adobe Stock
The two-parents-in-different-households caregiving challenge is not something significant numbers of Americans had to figure out in previous generations. But it’s here to stay.

When my mom developed Alzheimer’s disease many years ago, my sister and I jointly managed her household affairs, from paying the bills and making sure she had groceries to mowing her lawn.

We were each running our own households at the time, so adding hers was a juggling task that wasn’t overwhelming only because we shared it. Even so, hours were often long and I felt over-stressed at times. I didn't appreciate how uncomplicated the situation actually was.

And only later did I appreciate what true exhaustion looks like. I can even hear it in my friend Carolyn’s voice when we talk on the phone. She seldom has time to get together. She’s running three households in two states, and it’s nothing that her life prepared her to manage.

Carolyn could be the poster child for one increasingly common aspect of America’s changing, aging demography and its challenges. She’s a singleton (a phrase she prefers to “only child”) who reached her late 40s to find her daughters heading for college and her mother heading to rehab for a broken hip. As sometimes happens, the fall that hurt her was just the opening salvo in a string of medical issues that has left the elderly woman quite frail, though she’s not inclined to leave her home. She can’t afford assisted living anyway. But the details of her life have overtaken her planning, which was predicated on the mistaken notion that nothing much would change.

She was wrong. So Carolyn makes many of the decisions and the daily arrangements that keep her mom’s life workable and her household running because her mother can no longer handle all the tasks. And Carolyn does it from her own home in Utah, while her mom lives near Portland.

There’s more. About a year after her mom fell, her dad had a heart attack and hasn’t bounced back. So Carolyn manages some of the same aspects of his home life, like paying bills and arranging for someone to care for his yard and deliver his blood pressure medicine, though she’s in northern Utah and he lives in the southern part of the state. During crisis weeks, she’s on a plane to see her mom or driving south to take care of her dad. And their needs are likely to grow.

Carolyn's parents divorced years ago, somewhere in their late 50s to mid-60s. “Gray divorce” is now an established piece of America’s demographic story — and a challenging one when parents grow old, even when one has siblings.

The two-parents-in-different-households caregiving challenge is not something significant numbers of Americans had to figure out in previous generations. But it’s here to stay.

While many adult children bring frail parents home to live with them, Carolyn’s mom and dad have not spoken to each other in 15 years. And if she brings one home — the most frail, perhaps — it may create hard feelings with the other. Still, she knows it’s not practical or affordable to set up separate domiciles for each nearby, although that’s the best option she can think of at the moment.

5 comments on this story

I have another friend with a different but related issue: Her mom remarried after her dad died. And now, several years later, she and her second husband are both quite debilitated. Her mom loves her husband, but since a stroke he needs more care than she can manage. His adult children want him to move in with them, but they don’t want to take in his wife, who they barely know. She doesn’t want that, either.

How do you work things out with the step-siblings you met when you were 50 if you disagree on how things should go? At this point, it looks like my friend’s mom’s husband (“Stepdad” seems weird, given they met when he was 75) might go live with his kids, while her mom comes to live with her.

That's not something they put in their wedding vows or saw in their future.