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Role Reversal: Caregiving for Aging Parents

When an aging parent needs caregiving, the children often need to take responsibility. But what happens when only one of many siblings steps up to the plate?
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Hannah Kalil is 83 years old, and lives by herself in upstate New York. She has aides who help with her caregiving throughout the day. But the responsibility of managing her finances, health care -- both mental and physical -- and long-term living situation falls to one person: her daughter -- and my mother -- Eleanor.

It's almost a full-time job. Making sure my grandmother is happy and not feeling lonely means daily visits. Her never-ending stream of medical issues means weekly -- if not more frequent -- trips to the doctors. Paying her rent and her aides while keeping an eye on the bottom line means constant vigilance if she is going to have any financial security in the long term. Finally, my mother must deal with the endless stack of paperwork for Medicaid and health insurance.

To make matters worse, my mother shoulders these responsibilities on her own -- despite the fact that her two brothers and sister all live nearby.

This situation is not uncommon: When an aging parent needs care, it's often one child out of several siblings who steps up to the plate to offer help. And with more Americans living longer -- to 75 years and beyond -- this scenario will only become more familiar.

WebMD talked to experts for their insights into the aging of America. What it means for adult children, like my mother, who are put in a position to care for their aging parents. How the one child who shoulders the responsibility of parent-care can enlist the help of others, without starting a family war.

Aging in America

The dynamic of age in America has shifted dramatically over the last 60 to 80 years, experts agree, and its impact on the family is clear.

"There is definitely a changing age structure within families today," says Neal Cutler, PhD. He is the executive director of the Center on Aging for the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodlawn Hills, Calif. "Its cause is simply greater longevity."

With more Americans living well beyond their 70s, more adult children are now left in a position where they have to be caregivers for their aging parents.

"There's a greater likelihood today that, as a 55-year-old, you will have surviving parents, than there was say in the 1920s when both parents passed away before you reached the age of 50," says Cutler, who is also dean of the American Institute of Financial Gerontology. "This means that middle-agers, who are planning for their own older years, also have to think about their parents."

To complicate matters, one adult child of an aging parent often bears the responsibility of the parent's care alone. What factors play a part in determining who takes on the care of Mom or Dad?

"There is a gender bias in terms of who cares for an aging parent," says Lisa Hollis-Sawyer, PhD, coordinator of the Gerontology Program at Northeastern Illinois University. "It's fairly universal that we think of women as a caregiver, so their role in helping an elderly parent is not uncommon."

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