Write 'Em Out of the Will

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Forget arthritis and blurred eyesight. There's a more depressing problem facing baby boomers in old age: children who don't care about them. Compared to previous generations, baby boomers have higher rates of divorce and remarriage - two factors that can affect the parent/child relationship later in life, according to a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

"Elderly divorced persons are much more likely to rely on formal paid care," says Liliana Pezzin, coauthor of the study and an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins Center on the Demography of Aging. "One important implication is the potential for increased demands on public programs, such as Medicare home health."

After controlling for other variables that can influence the likelihood of caregiving, the researchers also found that elderly divorced parents are less likely to live with a child than are widowed parents.

The problem is especially acute for divorced dads, Pezzin adds. Elderly divorced fathers, who are often not the custodial parent after a separation, are nearly 13 percentage points less likely than widowed parents to live with their child. If they're lucky enough to get their kids' help when they are disabled, they don't get much of it: Divorced dads who receive informal care from their children get 18 fewer hours of quality time a week than widowed parents.

Don't count on your step-kids to help you up the stairs, either. "Some researchers advocate that remarriage makes a family whole again," says Pezzin. "But we find that stepchildren don't do a thing for their parents." Indeed, only 6.9 percent of widowed or divorced elderly persons with stepchildren lived with them, compared to 24 percent among those with biological kids.

Pezzin and coauthor Barbara Steinberg Schone used data from the first wave of the Assets and Health Dynamics of the Elderly (AHEAD) survey, fielded in 1993 with adults 70 and older. Since married couples are likely to care for each other, the authors limited their study to widowed and divorced persons.

One shortcoming of the data, Pezzin admits, is that there's no information on the age that the biological child experiences his or her parent's divorce or remarriage. Whether a child experiences divorce at age 3, 13, or 33 could affect their likelihood of caring for mom or dad later. For more information, contact Liliana Pezzin at lpezzin@jhmi.edu.

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