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Needy kids + aging parents = no more empty nest?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 5, 2013 01:00 PM

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A year ago, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg argued in his excellent book Going Solo that at every stage of adulthood, more Americans are living alone than ever before. It was a provocative claim that drew a lot of attention. But here’s a counterpoint: middle-age adults who should be ‘empty-nesters’ but instead find themselves still supporting their children or caring for an aging parent.

It’s a common situation these days. A tough economy and other changing social factors have meant that young people are taking longer to reach the milestones of adulthood—financial independence, marriage, kids—and need more of their parents’ help along the way. At the same time, older people are living longer, which often puts their middle-age children in the position of caring for them.

How do midlife people feel about these responsibilities? A new paper in the Journal of Aging Studies from offers some insights. It’s based on focus groups with 29 middle-age adults whose empty-nesting years haven’t turned out quite as they’d planned.

Most of the respondents reported being happy to provide ‘extra’ help to their kids, be it emotional support, money for graduate school, housing, or health insurance. These parents expressed the view that making it today is harder than it was when they were coming of age; they said they understand if their kids need more assistance than they received from their parents—even if that assistance comes at the expense of their own dreams. “I've kind of switched over from ‘I want to go to Greece’ to ‘Yeah! My kid gets to go to Greece!’” explained Beth, a mother of two kids in their twenties.

There was more ambivalence about taking care of aging parents. Many of the participants said they had not anticipated ending up in this position. They also said they didn’t really feel like they knew what they were doing. Richard, who takes care of his elderly mother, expressed an attitude common to focus group participants: “It brings my heart joy to be able to provide for my mom this way. There are times when it's a burden and I feel resentful.” And, overall, respondents found themselves struggling to figure out how to manage relationships that had been flipped: For their whole lives their parents had taken care of them; now they’re taking care of their parents.

All told, the focus group participants said that this stage of life was not how they'd imagined it, but that it wasn't all bad, either. Explained Mike, who is in charge of his ailing father, “Things to do with parent and kids, that’s an area of life you’re willing to accept what happens cause you can’t predict what’s [going to] happen… you have to roll with things to a certain extent.”

H/T Eureka Alert

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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