Divorce and disease

Caregiving: A split in the family doubles the burdens of providing care to aging parents.

Life After 50

September 23, 2001|By Diane Lore | Diane Lore,Cox News Service

The only thing left to do was kick the garage door.

For months, James Jones had dutifully traveled back and forth to the hospital with his mother, who was undergoing chemotherapy to fight ovarian cancer. She had moved in with Jones and his former partner, and the three of them had carefully stepped around most of the land mines of living together.

But there was still the grind of doctors' appointments, late-night emergency runs, medications, special diets and endless bills -- not to mention awkward phone calls from Jones' father, looking for his son but instead getting a terse ex-wife.

"I think we all survived because of good old-fashioned Southern repression," said Jones, 36, a structural engineer in the Atlanta area. "But sometimes it would become overwhelming, and I do remember venting in private -- pounding on the garage -- to get rid of some of the frustration."

Then Jones' father was diagnosed with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Now, along with helping his mother battle cancer, Jones travels once a month with his half sister to Florida to relieve his stepmother and stepsister from the stress of caring for his dad.

"He is such a good caregiver; he's really patient and loving," said Jones' mother, Frances. "But I never thought much how our divorce would make his life so complex."

Nearly one in four U.S. households is involved in providing care for someone age 50 or older, typically a parent or grandparent, according to the National Family Caregiver Survey, sponsored by the National Alliance for Care Giving and the AARP. And the divorce culture of the last three decades is making such care more complicated, as adult children of divorced baby-boomer families stretch themselves both emotionally and geographically.

"If you assume that family caretaking is always stressful, you're really upping the ante with divorced and blended families," said Elinor Ginzler of the AARP, based in Washington and formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. "It can really become a mess."

From fighting insurance battles to providing bedside vigils to talking with doctors about treatment, some adult offspring are learning that divorce often doubles their troubles.

Judi Voss, 56, understands the challenge. Daily, she calls her 83-year-old father, who has arthritis and diabetes, to make sure he's eating regularly and still able to care for his home. She also coordinates, with her two brothers, the care of their mother, 81, who has Alzheimer's disease. Both parents live in Pennsylvania but are "miles apart in terms of needs and care."

"There have been lots of times I've thought how nice it would be to go home and just be with both parents," said Voss, who is community relations director for an assisted living center in Atlanta. "I'm sure if they lived together, it would be easier. But in this situation, you can't coordinate anything easily. Everything is double duty."

Researchers say that the burden for many children of divorced families may be too difficult. And that could mean that many older Americans will be left to fend for themselves.

A Johns Hopkins University study, for example, found that divorced elderly parents were much less likely than widowed parents to reside with a child. They were also less likely to receive casual care, such as meal preparation or housecleaning, from their children. When they did get care, it was far more likely that their children paid someone else to provide it.

"What we are finding is that the effects of divorce travel far beyond the time of the split," said Liliana Pezzin, an author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Center for Demography of Aging. "The results are really disheartening."

Divorced fathers fared the worst, Pezzin said, and were far less likely to live with an adult child or receive money or care from an adult child than a divorced mother or a widowed parent of either sex.

Contrary to popular belief, remarriage did not add stepchildren to the support system of an ill parent, according to the study, which used data from the Assets and Health Dynamics of the Elderly survey.

For example, the study found that, while 68 percent of people with biological children received some form of assistance from them, only 30 percent of those with only stepchildren received help. Stepchildren also contributed only about half the monetary support of biological children and less than half the amount of informal care.

"We've always known that divorce is traumatic for adults and kids," Pezzin said. "What we didn't know is that the effects may be far more long-lasting than we thought."

And the problems extend beyond mere coordination of care. Divorced and blended families, experts say, often have more contentious relationships.

For example, Voss did not get along with her stepmother. Once, her stepmother, now deceased, didn't even tell Voss that her father had been admitted to the hospital.

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