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As America Ages, Part One: Boomers often must care for parents, children

Connie Clarner takes part in a line dancing club July 1 in the basement of the Sycamore Veterans Club in Sycamore. Clarner, 65, is part of the baby boomer generation born after World War II. Like many boomers, she helps take care of a loved one: Her husband, Ronnie, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 2000.
Connie Clarner takes part in a line dancing club July 1 in the basement of the Sycamore Veterans Club in Sycamore. Clarner, 65, is part of the baby boomer generation born after World War II. Like many boomers, she helps take care of a loved one: Her husband, Ronnie, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 2000.

Linda Chapman used to be a serial caregiver.

The retired high school teacher, who lives in DeKalb, began taking care of her mother after her father died in 1988.

At about the same time, her husband was dealing with a condition called temporomandibular joint disorder, which she described as being an arthritis of the mouth. All the while, she was taking care of her own newborn son.

“The [summer weather] would have sent [my husband] into pain for a couple of weeks at a time,” Chapman said. “We tried everything we could imagine.”

Chapman’s husband died in 1999, but shortly thereafter, her mother moved in when her Alzheimer’s worsened. Chapman said she provided financial assistance, as well as arranged doctor appointments and transportation, to her mother until she died in 2008.

Chapman is a baby boomer – one of the 76 million people who were born between 1946 to 1964 after World War II. This large generation has left an indelible mark on society, transforming America’s culture and economy that led to the United States’ rise as a global leader.

As baby boomers cross the threshold into retirement age – 10,000 boomers a day turn 65 – more of their attention is turning to family and the need to care for their aging parents while helping their adult children in a down economy.

“You have this group of individuals who were looking forward to retirement, and then everything burst, and now they’re having to work longer,” said Tara Culotta, executive director of DeKalb County Elder Care Services. “Or they’re having grown adult children move back home with them, who are unemployed or are having their own financial problems.”

Elder Care Services provides information assistance to people older than 60, on topics such as managing their finances. They also investigate instances of elder abuse.

Culotta said the agency knew the senior population was increasing, but she is seeing higher numbers of younger seniors needing help. Earlier in her career, Culotta said she dealt with mostly 80-year-olds who were trying to maintain their independence.

Now, many of the people who come into the agency are younger seniors who are having difficulty paying their rent or mortgages, and they’re frustrated.

“I think a lot of them are frustrated because they’re finding themselves in these predicaments they never dreamed of being in at this age,” Culotta said. “I think all of them kind of thought they had planned well enough or saved enough. They just didn’t picture themselves thrown in a situation where they’re asking for help for somebody to clean their home, or some financial assistance.”

’Sandwich generation’

At the same time, there are baby boomers who are taking care of an older parent while also helping their children. Culotta referred to them as being a “sandwich generation.”

Nearly 10 million American adult children over the age of 50 now provide care for their aging parents, a 2011 study from MetLife on the caregiving costs for working baby boomers found.

The total lifetime financial impact – in terms of lost wages, Social Security benefits and private pensions – for the average baby boomer to care for their parents is $303,880, the study found. That is the cost for leaving the labor force early and/or reduced hours of work because of caregiving responsibilities.

The caregiving role ranges from helping with the bills to helping with medical treatment. About a third of caregivers, the study showed, work less hours or leave the workforce early to focus their efforts on caring for their elderly parents.

“The trend is that people want to live in their homes and not in an institutionalized program,” said Betsy Creamer, supervisor for the Illinois Department on Aging’s Office of Older American Services. “Baby boomers are providing more and more care to their families as caregivers.”

Creamer’s office helps administers the department’s community care program, which provides in-home services for seniors. The state of Illinois has seen a “fairly dramatic” increase in demand for the program, which now serves 46,750 more residents than in 2003, Creamer said.

Many baby boomers also feel an obligation to help their children, who are more frequently returning home after college to look for career-oriented job prospects in a slow economy that includes persistently high unemployment.

A 2012 survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education found that 59 percent of parents are providing financial support to adult children who no longer are in school.

The support includes assistance with living expenses, transportation costs, medical bills and repaying home loans, the survey found.

The findings were released at the same time MetLife Mature Market Institute surveyed 2,123 Americans ages 21 to 65 on the level of financial responsibility people of different generations feel in a variety of family roles.

About 44 percent of baby boomers felt an absolute or strong responsibility to provide for their child’s higher education. A near identical amount – 45 percent – felt the same way about allowing a child to live at home during times of financial difficulty.

Connie and Ronnie Clarner are perhaps an exception to the rule: As they enter retirement, they have not had to take care of any family members, nor are they taking care of their adult sons, Tom and Jeff.

But that’s because by the time Connie Clarner was 28, she had lost her whole family. Her mother died from a brain tumor at age 50. Five years later, her father suffered a severe heart attack and died in his bathroom at age 61. Three years after that, her sister was shot to death by her husband.

“I outlived them all,” said Clarner, now 65. Her husband Ronnie is in a similar situation – both of his parents and his brother have died from cancer.

Instead, Clarner takes care of her husband, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 2000. She said she is enjoying retirement, but she recognizes she is fortunate. A lot of her insurance is covered by Northern Illinois University, where her husband worked for decades.

“I was very worried,” Clarner said. “I kept thinking, ‘It’s time to retire,’ because the job was getting stressful. But I was very worried because now suddenly you’re going to be taking home a lot less money than what you were used to bringing in.

“But for some reason, it works. It’s because you’re not buying the clothes cause you’re not working. It’s not going every day in the car using gas ... Something’s different.”

As America ages: What the baby boomer generation means to DeKalb County
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