What Do We Owe Our Parents?

Our mothers and fathers are living longer than any previous generation. How much time and money should we expect to devote to them? What are the limits to love, duty and moral obligation? In an exclusive nationwide survey, men and women shed light on what we think we owe our parents—and what we believe our children owe us

by Jennifer Braunschweiger
eldercare main image
Photograph: Photographed by Annabel Clark

Today there are almost six million Americans age 85 or over. By 2040 the number will have shot up to more than 14 million, according to U.S. census projections. That means there’s a lot of eldercare in our future—a lot of finding Dad’s lost keys, picking up Mom’s prescriptions, calling insurance companies, sitting by hospital beds. And depending on how old you are right now, in that time frame you could end up both providing eldercare and receiving it from your kids.

There’s no prenup for eldercare, no contract in which we lay out clearly what tasks we are willing to do, how much time and money we are willing to spend and what responsibilities, if any, lie beyond the scope of the agreement. We face the future not knowing what will be asked of us, assuming that because of love, duty and moral obligation, we will do whatever we need to do to help our parents. We may expect our kids will do the same for us. But where will we draw the line? Is there anything we won’t do?

To find out, More conducted an exclusive nationwide survey of 751 men and women, ages 18 and over, all of whom have at least one living parent or guardian. We hoped to explore the parameters of eldercare, to give some definition to this amorphous, enormous situation. We found that most of us do plan to help care for our aging parents. But we turned up interesting differences in how “caring for” is understood when we broke down the answers by age, race, political party and, especially, gender.

Men vs. Women
Overall, men are more optimistic about eldercare than women are. “The reason men have a more positive attitude is that a lot of them take a can-do approach to family life,” says Lisa Gwyther, director of the Family Support Program at Duke University Center for the Study of Aging. “They view it as ‘This is a problem to be solved; I can fix this.’ Women may be more aware of grief, sadness and loss, as well as how the burden of eldercare is affecting them.” In addition, experts say women still do the bulk of the work. Women tend to assume an emotional, nurturing role and handle personal tasks such as bathing, while men take on more practical chores, like handling finances or house repairs.

When it comes to eldercare, we are often forced by circumstance to make difficult decisions on the fly, before we’ve had a chance to consider our options. So we ask you now: What do you think your role should be as your parents come to the end of their lives? And what do you hope your children will do when it’s your turn? Maybe now is a good time to discuss your thoughts with your family. Because this we know for sure: We are not talking nearly enough about our parents’ futures—or our own.

Survey data:
What We Will Do For Our Parents
What We Won't Do For Them
Who Will Take Care of Us?

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First published in the September 2013 issue

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