Should children who want to honor their parents consider putting them into a nursing home? Many, looking ahead, view that as an act of neglect and dishonor: “I could never do that to my mother.” Instead, they expect that they will need to take their parents into their own homes.

While these are significant issues, they do not usually turn out to be so morally loaded as the children imagine. Actually, relatively few seniors are candidates for nursing homes. Only 5 percent of the over-65 population, and less than 25 percent of the over-85 population, are found there.

Second, while it is true that many older people dread nursing homes, there is another living situation they seem to dread equally: living with their children. As one writer put it, “An older person who feels he is being a burden will be miserable whether he is actually being a burden or not.”

So what is the best living situation? Assuming that our elders know what is good for them, the answer is clear: to live independently, for as long as possible. Now that social security has provided a minimum income for all seniors, this is financially possible for most. With Meals on Wheels and other forms of home care available, many elderly people can maintain their own apartments or homes even after they have lost substantial physical vitality. A point does come for some, however, when they can no longer manage independently. Then the question of living with their children is raised.

Health-care professionals warn that the children should be very careful not to impose their judgment; they see many cases where parents felt coerced to move into their children’s homes. Nonetheless, many who have had their parents move in testify that the intergenerational family can be a satisfying experience, so long as its commitments and compromises are carefully thought out.

Many of these same people testify that as health declined, they were unable to maintain their parents. Social workers say the burden typically becomes overwhelming for the family when there is incontinence, violence, abrupt mood swings, or overt sexuality (such as public masturbation). Though some continue to keep their parents at home even with these conditions, many others feel compelled to choose a nursing home.

Another living situation, often called “life care,” is gaining in popularity. It usually offers an attractive retirement community complete with health facilities, including a nursing home. Once in (typically at a high price), a resident is guaranteed care for life. One advantage these seniors cite: Their children will not have to go through the agony of deciding how to care for them when they can no longer care for themselves.

By Tim Stafford.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.