It’s hardly new news, that the couples that are divorcing the most in the United States right now are boomers. We’ve been talking about that since Al and Tipper Gore decided to split in 2010 after 40 years together (although they’re not yet divorced, another trend — the undivorced). But a recent study once again pointed out that the divorce rate for Americans over the age of 50 has doubled since 1990, and more than doubled for those over the age of 65. Most of today’s divorces — 55 percent — are happening to couples who’d been married for more than 20 years.
What does that mean for us, the women and men of a certain age?
A number of us have gone on to have loving partner-ships, which is great. But it’s also left many in dire financial straits, according to the study. And it has other ramifications, such as who will take care of all those divorced boomers? As one researcher noted:
“Now that they no longer have a spouse, divorced older people have less social support. Relationships with their older children could be compromised as a result of the divorce. As they age and experience health declines, who’s going to take care of them? Especially if they’re not able to afford the level of care that others with more economic resources have?”
It’s a complicated situation, and one that I’ve thought a lot about since my parents got ill and then passed away. But my parents weren’t divorced; they were married for 61 years, although a few bad things happened that led them to live apart for about half a year and that had me flying back and forth every few weeks to Cleveland, where my mother had heart surgery and then suddenly died, and to Florida, where my dad lived in a nursing home not far from their condo.
As complicated as that may have been, it may not be as complicated as the situation I may face as I age. Despite the 70 percent of adult children polled by in-home care provider Senior Helpers who said they’d happily have Mom move in with them, daughters were more likely than sons to do so, as were children living in the Northeast and Southeast. I have two sons and I live in California. Bummer for me. And I have another, bigger, strike against me — I’m divorced, so it’s likely I may be fending for myself during my golden years.
Children of divorce tend to be less involved in the daily care of aging parents, according to a study by Temple University researcher and gerontologist Adam Davey. Not necessarily because they don’t want to but because they often live far away from each other. Except I wasn’t a product of divorce and yet I still lived on opposite coasts from my parents for decades, and I don’t think that’s all that unusual nowadays.
Others often struggle with having to care for an aging estranged parent and perhaps aging stepparents with whom they may or may not have been close, says Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values and author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. I have certainly seen that.
With low birth rates, high divorce rates, a burgeoning population of single mothers — including single mothers by choice — and about 60 percent of second marriages ending in divorces, “our families, our nation will soon confront a never-before-seen shift in how we die and whom we’ll have around us when we do,” Marquardt says. “And the likelihood is that on every level, we will be dying much more alone.”
For boomers already caregiving divorced parents, stepparents and sometimes multiple stepparents, it’s making “an already complex and emotional situation” even more problematic, says Suzanne Mintz, president of the National Family Caregivers Association. As When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions author Paula Span writes in “Years Later, Divorce Complicates Caregiving” on the New York Times’ The New Old Age blog:
Years after parents split, their children may wind up helping to sustain two households instead of one, and those households can be across town or across the country. Further, unmarried women (whether single, widowed or divorced) face significantly higher poverty rates in middle and old age, according to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that AARP published last year.
Of course, the truth is that divorced, widowed, never-married, married, parents or not, close or far, we all die alone, or so psychiatrist Irvin Yalom says in his book Love’s Executioner:
“Though we try hard to go through life two by two or in groups, there are times, especially when death approaches, that the truth that we are born alone and must die alone, breaks through with chilling clarity. I have heard many dying patients remark that the most awful thing about dying is that it must be done alone. Yet, even at the point of death, the willingness of another to be fully present may penetrate the isolation.”
If you’re lucky, maybe a new partner. Or your child.
Photo © Przemyslaw Koroza/Fotolia.com