OldAndOlderThe news is filled with statistics about the growth of the aging population; there are two million individuals aged 90 or older in the U.S., and it is predicted that one million people will reach their 100th birthday in 2050.

What is sometimes lost in these numbers is that the caregivers of the very old are reaching advanced ages themselves. In fact, more than 65% of the very old have children who have reached old age too, and since most of the very old have outlived spouses and friends, their elderly children are likely to become their primary caregivers.

Jewish Home’s Research Institute on Aging is currently collaborating with Fordham University on a study funded by The Brookdale Foundation/Fordham University (Principal Investigator: Dr. Daniela Jopp), to explore the relationship between the very old and their advanced age caregivers. Researchers used in-person interviews with both standardized measures and open-ended assessments. The preliminary findings reveal that these relationships are characterized by complex emotions on both sides.

There are inherent challenges in these old-caring-for-older relationships; the limitations of the caregiver’s abilities can have an impact on the attitude of the elder being cared for. One elder’s response illustrates the profound impact of caregiver challenges: “It’s harder for him to care for me because he can’t carry me to put me in the bathtub anymore – it makes it really hard. I wish I was no longer around.”

Although most of the parents expressed being very grateful for their children’s support (75%), some also felt neglected (25%), and many were concerned about taking away too much from their child’s life (58%). One elder expressed, “Sometimes I wish I could be in a nursing home. I think it would be easier on her not to worry about me.”

Half of the advanced-age children reported that they were happy about still having their parent (51%). One “child” shared, “to see my mother alive at this age is a wonderful thing. To see how she overcomes all the difficulties in her health and seems to have a very positive outlook – she just shrugs it off. She can meet the challenges, overcome them, be tenacious – it’s a positive role model.”

Many, however, admitted to feeling overburdened by their support role (75%), and expressed that caregiving made it hard to have a life (42%). One “child” shared, “it’s a very big responsibility and very time-consuming and I don’t feel comfortable being away for long periods of time. My priority is to take care of her. The challenge is putting things on the back burner, such as traveling.”

Overall, the preliminary research uncovered a spectrum of emotions in these relationships, and found an important dynamic in effect. When one individual reported more challenges than rewards in the relationship, there was often poorer well-being in both. It is notable that despite their own advanced age and the inherent challenges in their caregiving situation, the “children” reported they still relied on their parents as sources of wisdom, and looked to their parents as role models for aging successfully.

Many more insights into these relationships are expected in the future, as these results are the initial wave of a proposed five year study.

Source: Aging Together: Relationship Dynamics between the Very Old and Their Old Children. Kathrin Boerner, PhD Jewish Home/Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, Daniela Jopp, PhD, Fordham University, New York

Photo credit, Schoning

This article was originally published in the Insight Research Newsletter, January 2013.  To sign up for future newsletters, fill out the form here