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Why is it that we heap scorn on "deadbeat" parents who fail to take care of underage children, but excuse adult children who don't take care of their feeble parents?

Perhaps it's because caring for children—no matter how many diapers and scrapes must be tended to—is a joyful experience, while aging involves untold sadness and indignity.

Maybe it has something to do with our unwillingness to confront death. We use euphemisms (e.g., "passing on") to avoid acknowledging the finality of our physical life. We are bombarded with ads purporting to show us that popping this pill will alleviate all age-related joint problems while this financial plan will enable us to ride horses and climb mountains into our silver-haired twilights. The ads sell a hope of mobility and freedom against the certainty of bodily decay.

The media trumpet our expanded life spans (now over 78 years, from 47 a century ago) and healthier retirements (we expect to beat cancer, pneumonia, and the effects of diabetes—diseases that meant certain death for our ancestors). Yet we face longer periods of incapacitation than our predecessors could have dreamed of.

With the looming geriatric society come problems. Social Security and Medicare costs are soaring, private pensions are collapsing, and quality nursing homes and geriatric health-care workers are in short supply.

The generations handling care for dying parents are facing something their ancestors never did. They're part of smaller and less-stable extended families. They're less likely to live near their parents—sometimes they are thousands of miles away. And the amount of time spent caring for elderly family members can extend from a few tough years to many difficult decades. Even the strongest ...

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In the Magazine

July 2009

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