Baby Boomers Need to Talk About Care

"The kids are grown and moved out, and I have more free time these days. Once I've turned 65, I'll probably keep working for a while longer, but I'd like to take time off to travel, play more golf, and follow some creative pursuits. And of course, spend more time with the grandkids. I watch my diet and exercise, so I should be healthy and active for many more years."

Senior man with golf clubs

The baby boom generation—those Americans born in the postwar years of 1946 to 1964—have always thought of themselves as a pretty healthy group, into health food and exercise. And for years, the prediction was that they would not only live longer than their parents, but also retain better health into those years.

But as the boomers are moving into their senior years, studies are showing that while they may indeed have a longer life expectancy, they aren't healthier. A December 2015 study from the University of Southern California projects that by the year 2030, when the last of the boomers go on Medicare, half of them will be struggling with disability and chronic health problems, due in part to a higher rate of hypertension, cholesterol, obesity and diabetes.

No matter how well we've taken care of ourselves, our needs can change suddenly and dramatically in the event of a stroke, heart attack or other catastrophic health event. Or our situation can change gradually, with some degree of arthritis, osteoporosis or sensory loss all but inevitable as we enter our eighth and ninth decade and beyond.

Boomers may be in denial.

Has this news trickled down to the boomers yet? If it has, many are ignoring it. Studies suggest that many boomers are in denial about what the future might bring. The Associated Press-NORC Study for Public Affairs Research has been studying the expectations of aging Americans during the last few years, and found that only one-third of boomers have done any significant planning for their future care. And though the boomers are more in favor of government-administered long-term care support than their parents were, the study confirms one ongoing truth: Many older Americans will rely on family as a mainstay of their long-term care. And this will offer challenges for families.

In November 2015, Northwestern Mutual released a report about the emotional and financial implications of delivering care to an older loved one. The C.A.R.E. (Costs, Accountabilities, Realities, Expectations) study found that 36 percent of Americans are providing care for an elderly or disabled loved one at present, or have done so in the past. The experienced caregivers surveyed reported that certain things surprised them. First, they had assumed that assisting Mom and Dad would mean helping out with tasks such as grocery shopping, cooking and laundry. They hadn't anticipated that emotional support, financial assistance and personal hygiene would be a big part of the package.

These caregivers also expressed that they often experience sadness, anxiety and fatigue—and sometimes resentment. They said they don't receive the same degree of understanding in the workplace as employees caring for small children. One particularly telling finding is that the majority of caregivers believe that providing care for two elders is harder than managing two preschoolers! Said Northwestern Mutual's Kamilah Williams-Kemp, "Unlike raising young children, the intimate nature of some of the tasks and the general role reversal between parent and child can be quite eye-opening."

This study should serve as a wake-up call for baby boomers and their adult children alike. Williams-Kemp says that candid conversations are the first steps to creating a plan that will enable caregivers to make the best choices for older loved ones without compromising their own financial and emotional well-being. She cautions, "With Americans living longer and the government estimating that 70 percent of adults 65 or older will require some form of long-term care, avoidance is no longer an option."

Start the conversation early and know your options.

If you were to need care, what spectrum of possibilities would be available in your area? An independent living retirement community if you just need to downsize and have access to a few services? An assisted living facility if you need help with personal care, some health services and meals? A skilled nursing facility for medically complex care? Memory care if you were to develop Alzheimer's disease or other dementia? Perhaps a life plan community, also known as a continuing care retirement community (CCRC), that would serve your needs as they change?

One trend to be aware of is that most seniors—more than 90 percent, according to the AARP—would prefer to stay in their own homes with support provided there. Would your home be suitable for your needs if you were to develop a disability? If you are healthy and able today, think back to times when you had a sprained ankle or a bad case of the flu. Were stairs a problem? Making meals? Staying clean? That might help you envision home improvements to make your home more age-friendly.

But human help is the most vital. How much would your kids need to help out? Don't forget that professional in-home caregivers can assist with all kinds of services tailored to the needs of each senior. They can provide help with personal hygiene, housekeeping and laundry, transportation, healthcare management, safety supervision, companionship, and memory care support for seniors with Alzheimer's or other dementia. This type of care significantly reduces the emotional challenges of elder care—the anxiety of wondering if older parents are safe and well-cared for, and the sometimes sobering contrast between how the parent-child relationship once was and how it is now. When professional caregivers help seniors with hygiene tasks and mobility, this helps normalize the family's interactions.

It's a good bet that Caring Right at Home readers are more savvy about these matters than the average baby boomers. The AP-NORC survey found that caregivers are more likely than others to plan for their own care; Caring Right at Home polls have shown that many of our readers are or have been family caregivers.

This planning helps ensure that as family dynamics evolve, the family will weather these changes with a continued sense of well-being. There's good news on this front from the C.A.R.E study: "Despite the emotional toll, many caregivers find the experience gratifying. Some 6 in 10 Americans say caregiving does/would provide the inner comfort of knowing they're doing the right thing, and 48 percent view it as an opportunity to return care and support received earlier in life. In fact, a resounding majority (81 percent) of current caregivers say they would do it again."

Learn More

Read more about the Northwestern Mutual C.A.R.E. study here.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.

Next month: It's becoming obvious that Mom and Dad need care. What's the best way to meet their needs? How will adult children and other family help them with hands-on and financial support? This is a time when old family tensions can bubble to the surface, standing in the way of making good decisions. To find tips for more harmonious shared caregiving, read "When Family Don't Agree About Elder Care" in the May 2016 issue of the Caring Right at Home newsletter.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.