October 19, 2012 / 4:56 PM / 8 years ago

Double the trouble when divorced parents get old

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Devin Pope never expected to find himself shuttling between his mother’s and father’s homes, caring for his aging parents separately.

A pair of elderly couples view the ocean and waves along the beach in La Jolla, California March 8, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Sure, the 33-year-old financial planner from Salt Lake City always knew his parents were going to get older. And he realized there would probably be health problems along the way, like when a stroke in 2001 left his dad partially paralyzed and without much of a short-term memory.

But he never expected that his folks would divorce just a few years later, after 27 years of marriage. Now his parents are facing their golden years apart, and instead of leaning on each other for support, they are depending on Pope and his siblings. Mostly on him, Pope says.

“It’s definitely not an easy situation, and there have been so many emotional hurdles,” says Pope, an adviser with Albion Financial Group. “It’s been a few years now, and it can be very discouraging. But that’s how life is sometimes.”

Now, when he pops over to his dad’s place to catch a St. Louis Rams game, his mom is not there. And when he grabs dinner and a movie with his mom, his dad is not there. It is a sad ending for a couple who first met at a high-school football game, so many years ago.

For Pope, it’s not just sad; it is time consuming, too. His dual responsibilities are taking a chunk out of his calendar, and his psyche.

If you are a child of one of the 79 million baby boomers in America, you need to be ready for this possibility. Indeed, one out of three boomers is currently unmarried, according to a study published this spring in The Gerontologist journal.

Some 60 percent of unmarried boomers are divorced. And that carries serious implications for the next generation: Who will care for those people, how will the emotional and financial costs of that care be shared - and what can society do to prepare for this demographic tsunami?

“We found that unmarried boomers are much more economically vulnerable than married boomers are,” says Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Ohio’s Bowling Green University and a co-author of the study. “They’re more likely to be poor and to be using public assistance, and they’re less likely to have health insurance but more likely to have a disability.

“This all raises questions about who is going to provide for them as they become frail and infirm. And the answer is not entirely clear.”

Especially daunting is the expectation that the number of elderly, unmarried parents is only going to grow from here. “Since 1990, the divorce rate of those over 50 has doubled,” says Brown. “In 2010, the number of 50-plus divorcees was around 643,000. Even if the divorce rate remains flat over the next 20 years - and that’s a very conservative assumption - that number will increase by a third, to 828,000.”

When multiple marriages are involved, another sticky situation can arise: Adult children can be called upon to help not just biological parents, but also stepparents. And they may have to make tough choices for their parents, while working with stepsiblings they may not be close to, or even know very well.

The challenges are basically twofold for adult kids of divorced boomers.

One is financial: In 2011 the average annual cost for a private room at a nursing home was $87,235, according to the MetLife Market Survey of Long-Term Care Costs. An assisted-living facility costs $41,724 a year, while a home health aide charges an average of $21,840. Divorced couples cannot even take advantage of economies of scale by sharing an apartment or aide.

The second challenge, no less forbidding, is emotional. “As long as there are two parents together, they pretty much take care of each other,” says Francine Russo, author of “They’re Your Parents Too!” The real crunch comes when a single parent needs care, and the children have to deal with it, she said.

That was the case with Pope, who admits he was caught in the middle between his mother and father. Soon after the divorce, he tended to defend his father - not because of any inherent favoritism, but because the stroke had diminished the older man’s ability to understand his situation and surroundings.

But adult children of divorce can face other emotional challenges: They may feel anger or resentment at one parent, or feel like they have to parse out their time equally between both parents.

“The emotional stakes are very high, and it can get pretty intense,” says Russo.

Experts suggest taking financial action early. If your parents are on the younger tail of the boomer generation, then acquiring long-term care insurance now could help defray significant costs later. If they are already at an advanced age, though, the annual premiums would probably be too crushing, or they might not even be eligible because of previous health problems.

You could also consider reverse mortgages, which would allow your parent to tap home values to help cover living and healthcare expenses. But many family homes get sold off in late-life divorces.

“Reverse mortgages used to be seen with skepticism, but more and more they’re seen as an option that can be very beneficial,” says Russo.

Those monthly checks can be a critical boost to other income sources like personal savings and Social Security. On the other hand, most reverse mortgages carry sizeable upfront fees, and the bank takes its cut back first when the home is eventually sold.

Also critical to keep in mind: When multiple siblings are involved, try to forge a path forward together.

“As soon as you have an inkling that a divorced parent might need assistance, it definitely requires a family meeting,” says Joy Loverde, author of “The Complete Eldercare Planner.” “Everyone needs to be there, to open up about any concerns, to start sharing responsibilities. Start talking about it right now; do not wait.”

Some aging parents may simply need help claiming the money that is due them. Spouses who divorce after 10 years of marriage often can claim each other’s Social Security benefits and may have pension rights as well. The divorce may have been predicated on a support agreement.

As for Devin Pope, the family has been making it work financially through a combination of personal assets, Social Security, and Veterans Administration benefits (his father served in Vietnam). Meanwhile his mother has gone back to work full-time as an interior designer to bolster her own assets for the years ahead.

In a society with so many divorces, a retirement apart is in some ways the new normal.

“The biggest challenge is balancing it all,” says Pope. “After all, you still have to have your own life, too.”

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Editing by Linda Stern and Lisa Von Ahn

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