When Parents Age, Who Supports Whom?

Last Sunday evening we had dinner with another childfree couple. The four of us got into a discussion about various parents who are acquaintances of ours who, over the years, have challenged our choice to not procreate. From time to time the question, “Who will care for you in your old age?” had come up.

          All four of us had more or less the same response. It goes something like this: “How do you know that you won’t need your elderly parents’ financial help? And how do you know that you will survive until old age, or that you will outlive your parents? How can any parent know that their adult children won’t be living far away and thereby be unable to care for them?”

          In fact, we (the authors) know adults who want nothing to do with their parents.

          We deal with many of these issues in Chapter 9, “Caring for an Aging Population,” of our book Enough of Us.

          In a study by Merrill Lynch in conjunction with Age Wave, which describes itself as a  “thought leader on population aging and its profound business, social, financial, healthcare, workforce, and cultural implications,” came up with some illuminating, if not startling, revelations about roles older parents may play in their adult children’s lives.

          For example, “Sixty-two percent of people age 50 and older have provided financial assistance to family members during the last five years. However, the vast majority have never budgeted or prepared for providing such support.” We wish the study had stats for retired parents.

          More than 55 percent of people in the study believe that a member of their family is the “Family Bank” because that person is the one most likely to be tapped for financial assistance. The upshot is, the more financially responsible people are, the more money they have, the more approachable their personalities, the more likely they are to be viewed as the Family Bank.


Grandparent. Photo – Wikimedia Commons by Steve Evans

         Heaven help the prudent, good-hearted soul who has relatives with few qualms about extending their palms. And get a load of this: Half of folks over age 50 who have not yet retired say they would make sacrifices that could negatively affect their retirement in order to help family members, including retiring later and returning to work after retirement. We wonder if that could mean money lost to adult children might have otherwise enabled older folks to pay for long-term care insurance, assisted living, or retirement village expenses.

          As one focus group member who participated in the study put it, “I thought I would be supplementing my grandchildren’s college funds. It turns out I was the college fund.” But more than a third of those who parted with their hard-earned savings in order to help family did not even know what the money would be used for.

          So while many older pre-retirees and retirees were being supportive of family members, they were undermining their own capacity for remaining independent and self-reliant.

          For younger generations, the anxieties about a long life center on exhausting financial resources. But for older Americans, just as important is the fear of becoming a burden to their families. It seems that the irony occurs at the nexus of being the Family Bank and of becoming a burden when that burden is due to a paucity of financial resources.

          The greatest “burden” fears are:

  • Having family members physically take care of me;
  • Taking my family away from their own lives to care for me;
  • Needing money from family to help pay bills;
  • Being responsible for stress and worry among family members;
  • Having to move in with family members.

          Two-thirds of study participants say they have done nothing to preclude the necessity of moving in with family, if unable to live on their own. The concept that offspring will be available to assist their elderly parents is at best a hit-and-miss proposition. In fact, the reality can frequently be nothing less than a tragic irony. When older parents bail out their progeny, they may be jeopardizing their sustained independence.

          Add that to the aforementioned possibilities of children pre-deceasing their parents, parents dying before attaining old age, children and parents living far apart, plus the possibility of estrangement, broke offspring, and parents not having enough resources because they had been generous to their adult kids, and the answer to the question addressed to the childfree and childless of “Who will take care of you in your old age?” can be turned around and asked of parents as well.


  1. I bookmarked this! Since my and my sister’s grandmother died, my sis immediately began to look at me and mainly our mother as the substitute ‘Family Bank’! While my gran very frequently helped out my sister(who could’ve stood more on her own 2 feet), gran sometimes complained…mildly but helped her out anyway. Our mother has become my sis’ family bank after her mother passed in the late 1980’s. Yeah, it’s been awhile! Our mother really can’t(nor I)afford to do this. At times my sis would try to get me to also hop on that bandwagon but I firmly resolved to not go down that path. Our mother frequently complains…like her, I would be nearly tapped out financially! While I do care about my sis, I’m very CLEAR that I’m NOT her ‘parent’ or ‘sugar-mama’. She’ll have to just deal with her money issues like the grown woman she IS or sink.
    (I hope she doesn’t sink but I will not either!)

  2. Thank YOU for providing such interesting topics!:)

  3. Well, though I must confess that my mother helped me out financially at times during her life, she did so cautiously and under the advice of a financial adviser. She contributed modestly to my daughter’s college education. Fortunately, she had the means to live comfortably, as she always had, until she died suddenly at 92. She had a good life.

    I’m a little bothered by your article, however. People over 50 helping “family” does not necessarily mean helping adult children, the focus group member’s comment aside. It would be more revealing to find a study that pertained to supporting adult children. People over 50 are often supporting their parents, I believe, even though it may be anathema to those parent. At least I have seen many instances of this.

    My 27-year-old child is fortunately independent financially at this point, and really wants to keep it that way! I have helped her some of course, paying the bulk of her private college costs, but none of her graduate degree expenses.

    However, in the recent years of the Great Recession with high unemployment, it does seem likely, if not proven, that you are correct about adult children. I have seen this happen often, too, especially in recent years, but also in the past (with an ill or disabled adult child, for example). Coupled with investment (including real estate) losses in recent times, the Family Bank could be particularly hard hit. But we can hope that has been a bump the road and that some day the economy will truly improve. Especially if people stop having children.

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