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Decades After Divorce, Caregiving and Grieving Challenge Grown Children of Divorce

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A new report from the Centre for Social Justice in the U.K. has reignited apprehension felt by many: In an era of high rates of divorce and family break-up, who is going to take care of the old people? The report, The Forgotten Age, argues that two key threats are poised to "inflict poverty and suffering" on Britain's aging population. The first is "the looming crisis in social care where demand is set to rise sharply against the background of continuing public spending constraints." The second is "a ripple effect from high and rising levels of family breakdown [that] is impacting the old as well as the young." In the future, the report says, "fewer old people will have adult children and spouses and partners to turn to when they need help with the simple essentials of everyday life, such as washing, dressing, traveling to the shops and cooking."

Governments around the world are worrying. At the turn of the millennium, Canada's governmental research arm, StatsCanada, warned that Baby Boomers were going to pay a high price in old age for the soaring divorce rate, with women especially likely to bear heavy financial uncertainties. One family policy expert noted, "We've never thought forward to the impact of divorce on an aging population."

Here in the U.S., the Associated Press reported not long ago that the elderly are the single group in the nation at the highest risk for suicide. Many of those at risk are struggling with depression. But one suicide hotline in San Francisco reports that most of their callers "just want a compassionate listener," confronting as they are the double-whammy of aging and loneliness. Japan, which has a rapidly aging population, recently confronted a crisis of its own. This summer the New York Times reported that Japan was grappling with "the near daily discovery of old people who have died alone in their homes," inspiring the government to launch a house-to-house census of all its elderly citizens. One official said, "Now we see the reality of aging in a more urbanized society where communal bonds are deteriorating."

And it's not just Western and developed nations that are struggling. In a surprising move, in 2007 India's parliament passed a bill which penalizes citizens who neglect their parents over age 60 with three months in jail. Everywhere, social leaders confronting high rates of divorce and family breakdown, increased social mobility, and often dramatically lower fertility rates are asking who is going to care for the old people.

We hear a lot about how these social changes will affect the elderly and their leaders. But what about the grown children of divorce, those who must grapple with murky obligations to care for divorced parents who may not have cared for them as children, and those who must grieve the death of parents they have already lost once through divorce? Over years conducting research with adults whose parents divorced, I have heard many of their stories.

One young woman, a successful, married attorney in Chicago, told me that her divorced father reappeared on her doorstep only weeks before his death. "I was grown and he was remarried," she said, "and I think he started to realize he'd missed out on a lot of things with me." They "sort of reconciled" or at least "got to the point where we tried to communicate." But then he didn't survive the surgery, leaving his daughter to grieve his death and all that they had already lost.

Another young woman told me that her divorced father has cancer and she "tries to be there for him." She said, "I feel like that's what I'm supposed to do as his daughter because I still love him. I don't necessarily respect him. But I love him because he's my father." Her father is fortunate that his grown daughter is trying to do the right thing. But surely both of them feel and smart from the loss of respect that stems from the years when he was not there for her.

And what about when a whole family tries to grieve the death of a divorced parent? After I wrote a short piece about death and dying amid divorce, one young man wrote me a poignant email describing his own recent experience:

"My parents' 'Cold War' lasted until my Dad died five years ago; which brought everything up again, kids coming from out of town who do they stay with? Mom should finally be happy now, but I'm devastated! My dad was fairly well of, but left everything to my stepmother, what does that mean about how he felt about us kids? My mother attending the funeral was odd, here is a man she has despised for the last 25 years and she is mourning his loss? Her showing up at my Dad and stepmother's house after the service was galling and so unbearable that once most of the people had left I went out to dinner with my wife, one brother, and aunt and without my mother and unfortunately stepmother, who had to keep playing hostess. We couldn't even mourn the death of our father together."

Those who are sanguine about widespread divorce like to say that divorce is just a temporary crisis, that family members bounce back after a couple of years ready to start a fresh journey. But governments around the world, lonely aging persons, and grown children of divorce struggling with whether to care for and how to grieve their divorced parents are telling us that the results of family breakdown are far more dramatic and lasting. In death the many losses of divorce - relational, financial, and spiritual - can arise anew. The stories of younger people suggest that the consequences of divorce will be felt for decades to come.