published Sunday, August 5th, 2012

First Things First: Coming to terms with family fragmentation

Julie Baumgardner

During a recent talk, researcher and author Elizabeth Marquardt made this statement:

"In 2010, the first baby boomers turned 65. By 2030, 20 percent of America's population will be over 65. As the baby boom generation moves into later life, the proportion of American elders who are divorced is skyrocketing.

The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2015, 46 percent of boomers will live in divorced or unmarried households. These trends raise concerns for baby boomers as they age and challenges for their grown children as they become caregivers for their aging parents."

Marquardt and Amy Ziettlow are co-investigators in a three-year project funded by the Lilly Endowment to investigate aging, death and dying in an era of high family fragmentation. Marquardt and Ziettlow are asking Gen Xers such things as:

• How do you care for parents who may live far apart?

• Is there an obligation to care for stepparents?

• How do you grieve the loss of a parent when you have grieved the loss at the time of the divorce?

• How do you honor a father or mother who abandons their child?

During an interview, one man said, "My parents' cold war lasted until my dad died. Then my mom wanted me to mourn the loss of my dad with her. I had already mourned the loss of my father."

"Married parents will do their best to protect their kids from the worst of a dying parent's illness," said Marquardt. "Fragmented families don't have that luxury. In fact, many of those interviewed talked about stepparents who don't communicate once the biological parent has passed away. Family change is not the only stressor. Longer life span, smaller family size and rapid economic changes have a ripple effect on family breakdown.

"We have never thought forward to the impact of divorce on an aging nation," said Marquardt. "Marriage used to be 'until death do us part.' Now it is 'until it doesn't feel good anymore.' There are people who will die a lonely death due to family fragmentation. Leaders are asking who will be taking care of the old people. "

Marquardt does say that in the midst of the interviews with Gen Xers, she and Ziettlow have found a lot of hope with this generation.

"There is something about telling your story," said Marquardt. "Out of sharing tears, raw memories and family craziness, there is a hope that seems to emerge. They take a deep breath and at the end seem to feel a sense of relief."

Many of those interviewed said they agreed to do it because they wanted to honor their parents.

"The golden rule doesn't say, 'do unto others as they have done to you,' " said Marquardt. "Many of the Gen Xers we have interviewed say their only hope is to rise above what has happened to them and to 'do unto others as you would have others do unto you.' "

Who will be there to take care of you when you can't take care of yourself?

Email Julie Baumgardner, president and executive director of First Things First, at julieb@firstthings.org.

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