A 92-year-old marathoner. A woman who still practices law at 96. We love to hear stories like these of very old people who are healthy and high functioning, says Kathrin Boerner, professor of gerontology at UMass Boston. Yet the vast majority of 90-somethings and centenarians have plenty of health challenges, she says. And their care often falls on their children—who are older adults themselves.
Boerner has spent the last four years studying the relationships of older adults and the very old parents in their care. Her “Boston Aging Together Study” includes interviews with 114 parent-child pairs in the Boston area in which the parents are 90 or older and their children are 65 or older. Her latest paper from the study, “ ‘I’m Getting Older Too’: Challenges and Benefits Experienced by Very Old Parents and Their Children,” appears in the March 2022 issue of Journal of Applied Gerontology. Boerner’s coauthors are Yijung Kim, Elizabeth Gallagher, Kyungmin Kim, and Daniela Jopp.
“As I suspected, everyone talks about caring for their very old parents as a major issue in their lives, even if they have a positive relationship with their parents and relatively good support,” says Boerner, who also directs the UMass Boston doctoral program in gerontology. “The adult children say it’s not what they expected for this part of their lives. Those who have more difficult relationships with their parents find the situation incredibly hard. It’s interesting how much the past still matters.”
Most notably, the children reported significantly more challenges than rewards around caring for their parents. They referred to their own advanced age and health problems and how they hadn’t expected the prolonged caregiving due to their parents’ longevity. Often they reported feeling isolated, overwhelmed, financially strapped, and worried about their own health.
The researchers recommend stronger services and policies to support families in this increasingly common situation. ”Practical supportive services aimed at reducing the load on older children with very old parents are needed, including concrete guidance from health care professionals regarding how to navigate and prepare for their parents’ and their own aging and arising care needs,” they write. Mental health support, they say, could help the adult children with the significant psychological burden while also helping their elderly parents address feelings of guilt over placing an undue burden on their children.
Boerner and her Swiss co-researcher, Daniela Jopp, launched their study by convincing the National Institute on Aging that, while we have plenty of data about middle-aged caretakers, we don’t know much about older caretakers. “The challenges are different, because most likely that caregiver has or is developing their own health issues,” she says. “Most middle-aged children who take care of their parents expect that there will be a time in their lives when they are no longer responsible for their parents and their kids. They will have more freedom to do things for themselves. But that expectation is violated when there is no end to caretaking.”
“With the population of our oldest citizens growing rapidly, we need to know more about this,” Boerner says,
One surprise for Boerner has been hearing about the social pressure that older adult children feel to not talk about their challenges. “People are telling them, ‘You are so lucky you still have your mother,’ or ‘You’re so lucky your parents can still live in their own home.’ The children feel like they can’t say, ‘You know, it’s really difficult.’ It reminds me a bit of what new mothers experiencing postpartum depression go through, when everyone expects them to feel bliss. It’s a similar dynamic.”
“Many of the children told us this was the first time they could talk about this,” Boerner says, “and they were glad for the recognition.”
Read more of our March 2022 Advances newsletter