As physical changes and health problems increase as we age, so do some social roles. Whether we like these roles or not, they only feel optional to some people over 60. For many more, these roles are mandates. Increasing numbers of grandparents are expected to be work-day caregivers to their grandchildren. Many working class and poor parents provide housing to their adult children a decade or more later than they themselves became emancipated adults. Caregiving responsibilities are not limited to children or grandchildren. As we age, our own parents, spouses, siblings, and friends require our assistance.
When sociologists observed that elderly parents were living longer and a younger generation was staying dependent longer, they coined the term “sandwich generation” to describe the 50- and 60-somethings who were filling the gaps in caregiving. But perhaps that term has lost its luster because it inadequately describes caregiving experiences. With grandchildren, children, parents, siblings, and friends all needing help, the better term may be “lasagna generation.”
Caregiving has also become more complex. Home health agencies expect caregivers to administer complex drug procedures, flushing IV lines, sterilizing equipment, and changing dressings. Home care systems expect caregivers to fill in when their staff is late or fails to show up. Physical therapists want you in the home during sessions to reduce falls risks, while ignoring your need for some respite. One becomes the de facto mental health professional, the social worker, the recreational therapist, spiritual advisor and life coach.
At times it also seems that people over 60 are expected to perform magic. Our social systems suggest we should provide more of the care just described above, retire from paid jobs, increase volunteerism and community engagement, travel, dispose of income through philanthropy, walk nearly clueless into post-job finances, shut up about the real physical and emotional challenges that come with aging, and avoid looking like we need a hand. In 2014, when I formed my second board for me, one of my advisors took me aside and sotto voce said, “Pick one board you want to be on and refuse everything else. You will be picked apart by people’s desire for free work.” Perhaps because I have not yet left my full-time employment, I have not received direct requests for volunteering; but I have gotten the distinct impression I am being eyed up. There is something in the way words are emphasized in questions about what I will be doing after I retire.
In the past I might have gotten a question a month from friends and family about any recent trips I might have taken. In the past couple of years, the rate of travel questions has stepped up to nearly one per day. The tense of the questions has changed, too. I am now asked where I will be going.
Then there is the bucket list. I wonder if anyone else finds the expression rather creepy; or the expectation that we have one, rather odd. What do you want to do before you die? I confess a sort of fascination listening to 30-somethings seriously working on their bucket lists. Way beyond the actual items on the list, I am curious about having a list that is so specifically tied to death.
Our communities increasingly need the active and thoughtful involvement of older adults. Since the last 1990s, the US has had the number of older people exceed the number of children. Across the world this same situation is expected to happen for the first time within the next 30 years. Reduced birthrates and the increase in the number of older adults are affecting issues of equity and interpersonal caring that are foundations of a just society. This shift in the proportion of the population represented by older people will affect families, living arrangements, regional populations, healthcare, social and community services, and the burden of illness. Aging is already having big political impact on election outcomes, campaign supports, and legislative priorities. The transfer of wealth in the past decade is unprecedented, but other economic impacts are only now being realized in terms of investments, product consumption, labor, and economic growth sectors.
It seems to me that the physical, economic, social, familial, and political importance of aging has not translated into widespread discourse about it. Instead money is being made from our confusion and lack of intelligent direction. Our transactions are increasing in number and speed, but our relationships – those social interactions that make us humans of any age – are not keeping up at a pace needed to develop community informed by our most experienced citizens, people distracted by physical, emotional, and social issues about which we do not talk.