May is Older Americans Month, a time to highlight the contributions of seniors to our society. Perhaps the day should also recognize how their growing number is changing the nature of intergenerational relations.
Longer lives means an increase in the chance that grandparents may know their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren. Yet longer lives also bring challenges in ensuring that individuals who live into their 80s or 90s have the material, social and emotional resources to enjoy their lives.
The new reality for many families is that this demand for material, emotional and other support will only grow with a population that lives longer. Whether grown children can and will be willing to provide more for their parents’ support is an important question. Since the introduction of Social Security and Medicare, families are no longer expected to support their parents or pay for expensive medical care. But that institution is changing.
Many of us are probably unaware that 29 states, plus Puerto Rico, have filial piety laws. Texas does not. These mandate that family members should contribute materially to the support of their dependent relatives. These laws are rarely enforced, largely because it is not worth the time and effort to try to do so. But the existence of such laws raises the moral issue of who should be responsible for dependent aging parents. Should their care and support fall entirely on the state, or should the family be expected to, and possibly required to, provide at least some support?
During the past 50 years, the transition from traditional to post-traditional society has profoundly changed family life. Adult children’s decisions are no longer determined by strict rules and norms. The U.S. has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. More than 75% of divorcees remarry, leading to 40% of families forming blended households. In light of these statistics, should an adult child be responsible for stepparents? In most cases it is unrealistic to expect grown children to support their parents financially and pay for their medical care. Increasing costs of health care and housing mean that children simply do not have the resources to take care of their parents, pay for college for their own children, and plan for their own retirement.
The children of parents who have not saved or have behaved irresponsibly may reject any responsibility, and this abandonment of an older parent by adult children happens more often than one might think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the prevalence of elder abuse to be around 10%. Although research is limited, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission found that seniors with serious cognitive impairment are particularly vulnerable. This includes financial exploitation, physical and psychological abuse, and adult child neglect, among others.
Ultimately, the question is: Who is responsible for taking care of aging parents? The refusal or failure to fulfill any part of a person’s obligations to the care and support of children is looked down upon in our society. When children grow to adults, should it be the reverse of that? Should children be required to take care of their aging parents?
Nearly all states said yes in the past, but that expectation has waned. Conceivably, the possibility of enacting and enforcing these laws will be raised in the future as states cope with growing expenditures for Medicaid and the support of destitute and infirm older persons. But research shows that if enforcing laws requires adult children to take on financial responsibility for aging parents up until their death, these laws are likely to undermine family solidarity and closeness. Such laws and new ones could create intergenerational tensions.
As the baby boomer generation continues to age, this debate will only continue. May is a month to celebrate our older generation, but who will take care of this population that is living longer is a question that all of us will need to tackle.
Jacqueline L. Angel is the Wilbur J. Cohen Professor of Health and Social Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.