Divorce's shadow: when older parents need help

In later years, a dissolved marriage can impact everything from caregiving to questions about loyalty and inheritance.

When Linda Rhodes's parents divorced nearly 30 years ago, she knew the family was forever altered. But what she couldn't imagine then was the far-flung responsibility she would shoulder in helping her parents in their later years in separate locations. She frequently shuttles from her home in suburban Philadelphia to her mother's house in Phoenix and her father's home in Erie, Pa.

"For the past 10 years, I've been pretty active with both of them," says Dr. Rhodes, author of "Caregiving as Your Parents Age."

This kind of caregiving triangle is becoming more common as a generation of divorced parents grows older. The US Census reports that 7 percent of older men and 8.6 percent of older women are divorced. In 1960, less than 2 percent of men and women in this age group were divorced.

"We're facing a demographic bubble," says William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "The divorce revolution, the big increase, started in the late 1960s. The average person who gets divorced is in their 30s. We're coming up to a generation who in large numbers are going to enter late adulthood."

Calling this "the long shadow of divorce," Professor Doherty adds, "We tend to think of the impact of divorce as something that occurs during childhood. We forget how long it goes on."

That impact in later years can include everything from caregiving, as in Rhodes's case, to questions of loyalty, finances, and inheritance. At the same time, these late-life interactions offer opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Divorced elderly parents, particularly fathers, are less likely than widowed elderly parents to have adult children willing to provide informal care, says Barbara Steinberg Schone, a senior economist at the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality in Rockville, Md. She has studied the effects of divorce on families in later life.

Because fathers have typically been noncustodial parents, many have had weaker family ties after divorce. But, Ms. Steinberg Schone adds, "That may change because now there's more joint custody. Fathers have played a more active role."

Remarried parents typically receive less informal care from their children, she also finds. In addition, they tend to give less cash assistance to their children than parents who married only once.

Yet devotion runs deep for many adult children. Rhodes recently spent nearly a month in Phoenix helping her mother. She also makes monthly trips to check on her father, who lives alone. She spends hours on paperwork for each of them, filling out insurance forms and trying to understand the complexities of Medicare Part D. Rhodes and her sister split the time spent with their parents. "It's been extremely helpful that we can do that," she says.

As a consultant in education, Rhodes is not bound to the rigid demands of a 9-to-5 job. If she had not been able to be flexible, she would have used the Family and Medical Leave Act. It gives workers up to 12 weeks to care for a family member. "You don't get paid, but you know your job will be there when you get back."

Although Rhodes is in her 50s, she says, "I'm like a child who is 8 years old who fantasizes about their parents getting back together. It would be much easier."

Thomas Jedlowski of New York was only 5 when his parents divorced. Over the years he has helped his mother in a variety of ways, offering physical, financial, and emotional support. Five years ago, when she had surgery, he assisted with her recovery. That cost him a part-time job.

"I had to call in to miss several shifts," says Mr. Jedlowski, now a publicist. "They said, 'This isn't your health issue, it's your mother's.' I said, 'I'm all she has.' They fired me."

His mother, a retired nurse, gets a disability pension that covers her needs. Yet he envisions a day when he might need to help financially. "I'm afraid that with Social Security in limbo, if the time comes when she needs long-term care, I may be up to bat for that." An older brother and sister are not able to help, he says.

Still, Jedlowski is quick to emphasize the rewards of their relationship. "My mother and I are very, very close," he says. "Probably closer than most parent-child relationships in 'traditional' situations."

In cases where other family members are not available, some former wives step in to care for their ex-husbands in times of need. "They feel a responsibility," says Jo McCord, a family consultant at the Family Caregiver Alliance in San Francisco. She also knows a divorced husband who cared for his former wife.

When divorced parents are remarried, family responsibilities can grow more complicated. "Where do your loyalties lie?" asks Donna Schempp, program director of the Family Caregiver Alliance. "Do you help your mother take care of your stepfather, or do you help your stepmother take care of your father?"

Not everyone feels a sense of obligation to parents. Donna Wagner, director of gerontology at Towson University in Maryland, sometimes asks her students who are in divorced families, "What do you think you'll be doing for your parents when they're older?"

The responses are sobering. About one-third of students tell her, "I'm going to help." Two-thirds say, "Forget it."

Ms. Wagner adds, "The relationships we have with our family members when we're younger are often predictive of the support we have available to us in old age."

Even so, many families do find ways to meet their needs. Ms. Schempp encourages adult children to work together with siblings. "Get some siblings to deal with one situation, some to deal with another," she says.

Family experts also recommend advance planning.

Amanda Talbot, a dental hygienist in Boston, was 8 when her parents divorced. Last year she and her two brothers, all in their 20s, got together to draft a plan in case their parents need assistance someday. Their mother lives in Maine, their father in Wisconsin.

"I'll take care of my father, and my youngest brother will take care of my mother," Ms. Talbot says. "My middle brother will go wherever he's needed." When they discussed these arrangements with their parents, both were pleased.

Financial arrangements also rank high. Doherty emphasizes the need for good estate planning in the context of remarriage. "Some parents write into their will that not all of their money goes to the second spouse," he says. "Some goes to the kids and grandkids."

Adult children also need to keep their own retirement needs in mind if they are helping to support parents, says Tom Cassidy, a professor of social welfare at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

Whatever a divorced family's history might be, family specialists encourage parents and grown children to use late-life connections to resolve old differences.

"Sometimes I see people really making an effort to get over hurts and resentments to make peace," says Michelle Weiner-Davis, a marriage therapist in Boulder, Colo., and founder of DivorceBusting.com.

She emphasizes the value of forgiveness. "You don't necessarily have to have a lovey-dovey relationship, but people need to find ways to connect."

Ms. Weiner-Davis watched her parents divorce 35 years ago. Although she describes the breakup as "fairly amicable," they did not maintain contact. But now, she says, "My father always asks how my mother is doing, which he never did in the past. It's quite healing to have him ask."

Such situations offer opportunities to make peace, says Nora Jean Levin, executive director of Caring From a Distance in Washington, D.C. "When families take this [caregiving] experience as a positive experience, there can be resolution. That's a good goal to work towards."

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