Plumb Lines

September 24, 2009

The Balance of Dependence

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:02 am

We will be dealing with the decay of that unstable isotope, the nuclear family, for a long time to come. The members of my generation suffered through the chaos of  divorce, remarriage, and custody battles while enjoying some of their rewards (two Christmases!). Now, the balance of dependence is tipping. The first Boomers entered their 60s two years ago. By 2030, the population over age 60 will have increased by 75 percent, with much of that number coming from the “me generation.” As boomers enter their second childhood, we are seeing a great historical irony: the uncertainty and chaos they inflicted on their children is about to be felt by them.

Our society has never been very clear about what obligations a grown child has towards his aging parents. But in the case of the Boomers, the question becomes exceedingly complex. What responsibilities of care does one have toward a stepfather? Toward a parent with more than one set of children? Forget the question Who will get the kids? It’s now Who gets stuck with the grandparents?

This is why I can’t quite agree with this comment on First Thoughts:

The original WSJ article and Schmitz’s addendum miss the point by advocating for “lifelong communities” where the elderly co-mingle with multiple generations. All the advantages they want for the elderly are met if parents, or widowed singles, live with or near their children and grandchildren. Building communities, or incorporating the elderly into communities, sidesteps the issue. No fruit stand customer, no matter how friendly, will attend to these “fogeys” as their health declines. Only a family member can do that. Just because the youngers are too selfish to bother and the elders are too selfish to entrust themselves to their children doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for the ideal and morally correct solution. Families should stay together, especially as they age.

Of course selfishness is the problem, but if we were able to extinguish that vice, there would be no need for good public policy nor, for that matter, the Cross. The challenge is to promote patterns of living in which largely but not exclusively self-interested people make good choices. So to say that children should just have parents move back in with them is not enough. The single-family dwelling in an auto suburb doesn’t do a good job of accommodating the extended family, no doubt because it was never designed to do so. People who already drive their children to soccer practice don’t want to also drive their aging parents to the bingo parlor.

I would love to see families welcome grandparents into their homes, but those grandparents will desire varying measures of privacy. They will want to venture out and visit with their peers. Having a wider web of community interaction — promoted in part by a mixture of housing that includes smaller, single-person dwellings and walkable streets — actually strengthens individual families by relieving some of the pressure they have to bear and under which they so often break.

-Matthew Schmitz

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