They saw you from Dick and Jane through Dickens and James, and now it is they who need the help.
For a variety of reasons, an increasing number of Americans are finding themselves in an unexpected and sometimes stressful situation--being a parent to a parent. They are the sandwich generation, squeezed between the needs of their children and the needs of their parents.
"The essential problem we face is that we aren't prepared for this new role," Dr. Gary W. Small said. "No one is prepared for it at any age."
Small, assistant professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and an authority on aging, has teamed with Dr. Lissy F. Jarvik, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and also the school's chief of neuropsychogeriatrics, on a timely book called "Parentcare" (Crown Publishers: $19.95).
A Straightforward Cycle
"Until fairly recently, the parenting cycle was straightforward," Small said in an interview. "We were born our parents' children, they took care of us until we were old enough to take care of ourselves. Then we became old enough to take care of our children. Then the probability, in most cases, was that the older parents would have died."
What now is happening, the doctor went on, is that advances in medical technology have causes survival rates to increase. At the turn of the century, only 4% of the population was 65 or older; today that figure is 12%.
"But although parents are living longer, we haven't figured out how to eliminate chronic illnesses and disabilities," Small said. "More than half of the people 75 or older today have some kind of disability.
"Not only are children having their own children later in life, they are finding that at the years when the needs of those children are greatest, that is when their parents also are needing their help."
In many cases the care-giver to the elderly parent has herself or himself already finished with the child-rearing, and now finds a new challenge to be faced.
"And," Small said, "we now are seeing the beginning of baby boomers becoming parents to parents. Also, because people are living longer, we are more and more seeing people elderly themselves become parents to parents."
He said he knows a 93-year-old woman being cared for by her daughter, herself a senior citizen.
"What we are seeing in the latter part of the 20th Century is the emergence of the verticalized family," said Dr. Vern L. Bengtson, director of the USC Gerontology Research Institute, and sociology professor at the university.
"There are more members of different generations alive than used to be--but fewer members of each generation."
Bengtson used the term "beanpole family, long and skinny." Until about 1940 to 1950, he went on, there had been a pyramid family structure--few members of the oldest generation, many of the younger generations. Now that pyramid base has compressed.
"This suggests that the generation in the middle has more burdens on it than ever before in American history," the gerontologist said.
Jarvik, the co-author of "Parentcare," said in an interview that young adults are having their children later in life.
"Therefore, they are going to be older while their children are still young, and this often is when their own parent or parents are beginning to make demands on them."
In former times, she said, not only were these demands not made, but the parents were still young enough to help out with the children.
In a recent newsletter, Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), said: "For the first time, the average household couple has more parents than children."
Furthermore, Levine said, "estimates suggest the average woman is likely to devote more years helping an elderly relative than caring for a dependent child (17 years for child care versus 18 years for elder care)."
"We learn in school about child care," Jarvik said, "but we don't learn about parent care. Neither the parents nor the child expected it to happen.
Americans Less Prepared
"Most people fantasize that they will just drop dead or not wake up in the morning. In most cases, though, we will have a chronic disease before we die. And we hadn't expected to be taken care of by anybody."
Among many Asians, Small said, there has been a greater expectation of aging parents being taken care of. "Culturally, however, Americans are less prepared for it."
Interestingly, Bengtson said, "research suggests that among wolves in northern Canada, younger members of the pack take care of the ones who get older."
Small reflected on the growing situation among humans in the United States:
"There is a sense of sadness. There always is a part of us that feels like a child, and we look to our parents for support. Then when we see that they need us, that they have less mental and physical strength, the child in us is forced to grow up."