Dealing with aged relatives? Your situation is not as unprecedented as you might think

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Billboards in Los Angles, and presumably elsewhere too, caution that we are living longer and therefore need to save more for retirement. This advertising campaign for an investment company seeks to capitalize on the demographic shift toward an aging population, a major concern in our society. We have even coined a new term to describe middle-aged individuals with simultaneous responsibility for both children and aging relatives: "the Sandwich Generation." While the aging of our oldest relations and the sheer numbers of elderly people may be unprecedented, earlier Americans also dealt with problems associated with an increase in the aged population. Colonial New England also experienced a sharp increase in the numbers of elderly. Although the demographic shift was not identical--that society also included many young people--increased longevity created social problems analogous to those we currently address.

The demographic shift occurred because New England was initially healthier for Europeans than Europe (even as it became less healthy for its indigenous inhabitants who succumbed to newly introduced diseases). By coming to New England people lived longer; and they lost fewer children to early death too. Families formed earlier in the parents' life cycle, and younger marrying women had more children than their European counterparts. The resulting big families also contended with problems associated with aging. Whereas in England great grandparents were very rare, and grandparents were not all that common either, in New England a notable number of people lived into their 80s or even beyond.

How did early New England deal with its elderly? Technically there was no such thing as retirement age; individuals worked until they died or became too infirm to care for themselves. Virtually every man--whether a farmer, artisan or shopkeeper--worked at home or in adjacent lands or workshops; hence they labored near the women in the family, who also toiled at home. In addition to its other functions, the home was the site for the care of the sick, childcare and most education. Even boys learning languages to prepare for university admission did so in the home of a learned man--almost always a minister--where they boarded while they studied.

The only option for infirm elderly individuals in these circumstances was to receive care from relatives at home. The burden of care fell on women, who were already looking after children, processing and preparing food (a far more onerous task in their day) and making clothing. Old people who had no relatives faced a dire situation. The women accused of witchcraft were more likely to be poor older women without relatives to care for them; scholars think they represented a strain on the community which could cause their neighbors to view them with guilt and suspicion.

Serious tensions could arise in families over the care of the aged. Elderly men often held on to their property even as they came to rely on a son or sons to perform the work. These adult sons waited to inherit, sometimes for decades, even as they married, fathered children and worked for their fathers with whom they resided. Such situations often led to tensions, as men deferred full adulthood to work their father's land. If the situation for sons improved on the death of the patriarch, the wives who were left widowed became dependent on these same offspring. The wills of elderly men often made provisions for the care of their widows. These provision could be highly detailed, describing the area of the house that she could occupy (down to which bed she slept in) or the sorts of care the man's heirs were required to provide (such as cutting wood for her fire). Such attention to detail (and the occasional court cases that arose from violations of them) suggest these arrangements could lead to much bickering and hard feelings. Just as in our society today, how to house and care for the elderly presented challenges to early Americans.

We tend to look back on the American colonial past as a model for a virtuous society in which people behaved themselves better than we do today. That the elderly were cared for at home appears to be yet another sign that theirs was a more caring and responsible society. Yet the situation was not so simple. Witchcraft accusations or bickering over firewood and which bed an aging woman used indicated that increased number of the aged-especially aging women--were a source of tensions in their society too.