Caregiving Today: How Greater Longevity is Changing The Family Home

A grandfather and his two grandsons sit on the doorstep leading out to the backyard.

Photo: Tom Merton/Getty Images

Hugh Kruzel didn’t realize he was on the cutting edge of a demographic trend when he moved back to his hometown of Sudbury. His parents’ “inability to keep up with things” is the diplomatic way he describes the reason for his return. His father was 84, his mother was in her late 70s, and Hugh expected the move to be temporary. That was nearly six years ago.

As the baby boomers age, many are coming up against something they never planned for — the need to move back in with their even older parents in order to take care of them. In Canada, the phenomenon is still just a burgeoning blip on our demographic radar. According to 2016 census data, 2.8 per cent of people aged 50 to 69 were living in the same household with a parent. In the U.S., the trend is big enough to have a name: boomerang seniors. Kathrin Boerner, an associate professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts, has done research on centenarians and their advanced-aged children. In a 2015 presentation to the Gerontological Society of America, she said, “Two-thirds of the very old have elderly children who are their caregivers. Many boomerang seniors never expected this type of life in their golden years, a life without rest, caring for even older parents while experiencing significant health issues of their own.”

That doesn’t describe Hugh’s situation, but he had to make major life changes. He was living in Victoria, where his wife was a soldier, and he had a good job working for the lieutenant-governor. He soon found himself taking so many trips back and forth that he opted for a move. “I knew the spiral was beginning, and it has continued,” he told me.

Hugh’s father was confined to hospital until his death in 2017, when his mother’s dementia care became his entire focus. The process created conflict and left his mother socially isolated, but Hugh was where he needed to be. Since his father’s death, his mother is “not managing as well as she used to.” He rebuilt his own network and landed a great job as head of special projects for the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT).  In his late 50s, he is not ready to retire. The family home, which he also maintains, is very large, so he has his privacy. “I’ve landed so well, it’s been a bit of a golden parachute, actually.”

Hugh’s situation led him to become an advocate — he is the chair of CARP’s Sudbury chapter. His story is a best-case scenario. But dramatic gains in longevity mean most people in this situation will be much older. As of 2018, there were 1.5 million Canadians over 80 and 300,000 over 90. Centenarians are the fastest growing demographic.

“People who would have been getting care themselves are now caring for people who wouldn’t have been around to care for,” says David Cravit, VP of ZoomerMedia and an expert on generational issues. It’s not just a question of physical limitations. We know caregivers of all ages suffer from stress and often experience guilt about feeling angry with those they are caring for. “And what about their finances?” asks Cravit. “It’s one thing to say I’m in my 50s and I’m helping my dad who’s in his 80s but, wait a minute, 20 years later he’s still here. What happened to my retirement?”

“With the demographics we’re looking at, I refer to it as ‘aging together,’” Boerner told the Gerontological Society.  According to her research published in The Gerontologist, 75 per cent of the centenarians she followed expressed being grateful for their child’s support, but the same proportion of “old” children felt overburdened.

Cravit believes it’s partly because the phenomenon is so new. He predicts more families will plan their  housing for multi-generational use. “Instead of saying darn it, Grandma’s going to move back in, that’s going to become the plan. The facility will be purchased with that in mind and, all the way through the family life cycle, people will pay more attention to that.”

I asked Hugh if he finds the caregiving rewarding — that sense of accomplishment and purpose is the silver lining for many family caregivers. “I put it into [the category] of am I doing the right thing,” he told me. “The answer, of course, is yes. But you know a lot of friends of mine have said: ‘Will your children do the same for you?’”