by Vicki Larson
I’m not one of those fatalistic people who are always thinking about their death. In fact, I rarely think about me dying. It’s an unpleasant subject, one I’d rather leave to the occasional nightmare, which I have, and, were I to be so inclined, to bad acid trips, which I don’t have.
But sometimes life wants to interrupt my feel-good party, like the e-mail I got at work a while ago. In a study taken by Senior Helpers, a provider of in-home care for the elderly, 70 percent of the adult children polled said they’d welcome having their mother move in with them. As for dad? Meh.
Since I’m a mom, I suppose I should feel somewhat relieved. But I can’t quite rest on those XX-chromosome laurels because the survey also revealed that daughters are much more likely than sons to move Mom in, as are children living in the Northeast and Southeast.
I have two sons and I live in California. Bummer for me.
As I wrestle with my own guilt and conflicted emotions over living on opposite coasts from my aging parents — knowing full well that I’m not being a really good role model for my kids, and my parents’ only grandkids — I am forced to face my suddenly depressing reality. As a divorced mom with no plans to marry again and no retirement nest egg to speak of, I wonder if I am I doomed to fending for myself during my sunset years.
It’s a question more and more people will likely be asking themselves given the changing landscape of the American family. In case you haven’t noticed, Ozzie and Harriet don’t live here anymore. With low birth rates, high divorce rates, a burgeoning population of single mothers — especially single mothers by choice — and about 60 percent of second marriages ending in divorces, “our families, our nation will soon confront a never-before-seen shift in how we die and whom we'll have around us when we do. And the likelihood is that on every level, we will be dying much more alone,” writes Elizabeth Marquardt in the Washington Post.
“Compared with the generations before them, these dying parents and parent figures will be far less likely to find comfort and help in the nearby presence of grown daughters and sons,” Marquardt says.
I’m not an empty-nester yet; my youngest has three years of high school ahead. But I’ll admit it — part of me has happily daydreamed about what it would be like to have total freedom again, not to mention a clean house that actually stays clean, once my two boys move out. Now I’m starting to think that I might not want to be so eager to have them leave. What’s wrong with boomerang kids anyway?
But it’s probably too late for me. With newspaper headlines last year screaming “Children of Divorce Care for Parents Less” based on a study by Temple University researcher and gerontologist Adam, my fate may be sealed. Davey found that children of divorce tend to be less involved in the daily care of aging parents, not necessarily because they don’t want to take care of them, but because they often live far away from each other.
Marquardt’s own research sees other problems. She found that adult children of divorce said they tended not to go seek comfort from either parent when they were younger, and thus were more likely to have strained relationships with their parents as they became adults. They especially struggled with having to care for an aging estranged parent — usually the father — who falls ill and, perhaps having no one else to care for him, seeks help from the children he once abandoned. And they struggle with stepparents with whom they may or may not have been close.
I can understand why a child might not want to care for an estranged parent, but there are no guarantees that children from intact families are going to care for an ailing, aging parent any better. I know several people who have such troubled relationships with their still-married parents that just thinking about having to call them — let alone care for them one day — has sent them to the therapist couch.
For a recent occasion, I sent my parents — who’ll be marking 60 years of somewhat-happy marriage this November — a card that jokingly warned them that they’d better be nice to me; after all, I’ll be choosing their old-age home. No truer words were ever written.
I’m not so sure that it’s just divorce, remarriage and choice moms are sending the kids to far-flung locales instead of hanging around the ol’ neighborhood or moving to be close to mom and dad. Few of us tend to stay in our hometowns anymore. America is a mobile country. But it’s true that divorce and remarriage sometimes send a parent to far-flung locales, even while the kids are still growing up. I don’t understand that, and I’ll guess they are likely the parents talked about in Marquardt’s study.
Yet when it comes right down to it, divorced, widowed, never-married, married, parents or not, close or far, we all die alone. I was reminded about that harsh reality when reading psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s “Love's Executioner ” a few years ago.
“Though we try hard to go through life two by two or in groups, there are times, especially when death approaches, that the truth that we are born alone and must die alone, breaks through with chilling clarity,” he writes. “I have heard many dying patients remark that the most awful thing about dying is that it must be done alone. Yet, even at the point of death, the willingness of another to be fully present may penetrate the isolation.”
Who is that other “fully present” person? Yalom doesn’t say, and that’s a good thing. It could be anyone.
Maybe even your child.