Team Mom: Boomers Will Have to Work Together to Care for Their Parents

In 1957, the average woman had 3.77 children, the first one born at age 24. Let's assume that it took her seven years to have her 3.77 children, so by 32 she had a full house, one whose daily minutia she was likely managing almost singlehandedly as her husband stayed steely focused on his career. She cooked and cleaned, looked lovely in her dress at the local supermarket, and transported her children to countless activities by way of a large station wagon with no seatbelts. The martini on Friday night was probably sorely needed.

That "average" mother is now 85. All likelihood is that she's widowed, lives alone and has some kind of health or ambulatory challenge that she has to manage daily. (Roughly 2 million people fit that description.) She has 50-50 odds of having Alzheimer's and, if she's comparatively healthy, she'll probably live for three to 10 more years. In an assisted living facility, that will run her somewhere between a quarter to three-quarters of a million dollars, which is problematic because the median net worth for someone her age is in the neighborhood of $180,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

So her 3.77 children, now 7.5 million strong, struggling to save for their own retirement in the midst of "the great recession" and the possibility of a five-year delay in Social Security benefits, have to square the circle on some arithmetic that just doesn't add up. They're lucky if they've saved enough for their own retirement, let alone funding her final years.

Boomers are more likely to live 200 miles or more away from their parents than they are to live down the block, so they have to manage mom's care remotely. And, given that a wave of those children is turning 65 this year (and a tsunami is following them), chances are good that they have health problems of their own. And do their kids have good jobs? In this economy, who knows?

Bummer. The boomers are hitting a heck of a speed bump in what's been a pretty smooth ride thus far.

Making critical, and often irreversible decisions for an aging parent is stressful in the best of times. Trying to find agreement and equity among multiple siblings (many of whom are only half siblings) to tackle the work and financial challenges at hand proves impossible for countless families. And the "squad" who triumphed at bike races and little league and basement soccer has gone in different directions. Nobody can quite remember how they functioned collectively 50 years ago. But they have to now.

I joked with a friend several months ago that, in every family there's the child who steps up and gets stuff done. There's also the one who "just can't cope" and the one who does nothing but takes all the credit. Often there's the prodigal son -- who does nothing, shows up at the eleventh hour to much fanfare, and is exulted over by mom in her bed -- while poor Cinderella sits by, getting henpecked for the slightly overcooked toast at breakfast. My friend asked me if I'd been at his family's Christmas last year draped in Harry Potter's cloak of invisibility.

Another dear friend lives across the country from her 83-year-old mother. My friend can't see her mother very frequently but takes the lead on her financial matters. Her mother has bad arthritis and congestive heart failure, and my friend's older sister provides daily, in-person support. My friend shared with me the tremendous guilt she feels about the caregiving burden that has landed on her sister. I pointed out that her sister would be lousy at bookkeeping and that my friend would be lousy at day-to-day, physical caregiving. She couldn't disagree. They're both doing the best they can; no point in beating yourself up for things you can't do well.

A close friend told me that when her father was dying of cancer, her mother sat the four daughters down and pointed out that everyone grieves differently. Her only ground rule was that nobody criticize anyone else's grieving pattern. And that's kind of where the rubber hits the road.

The New York Times' "New Old Age" blog stated wisely, "Today's multitasking adult daughter has to be careful not to take her mother's calendar as yet another get-it-done project. Isolation may be bad, but so is being bossy."

We're all grieving as we encounter the final years with a parent. We're wondering how it possibly went so fast, how it all felt so easy back in the day, and we're reflecting on the dysfunctions that every family has, and re-experiencing the pain associated with that. The only way to navigate the waters is to do the best we can, to keep our cool as our siblings grieve in their own ways, and to come to terms with the fact that this is a process that isn't fun and carefree but can be enriching if it's approached realistically. As a generation, we might as well lock arms; we've got a big job ahead of us, and the only way we'll make it through is with teamwork.