Paula Span at The New Old Age blog raises this important and timely issue about motivations for caring for a stepparent in need, especially when the remarriage happens long after the children from the first marriage are grown and on their own, and thus never raised by the new stepparent.
“Initially, many adult children whose divorced or widowed parents remarry seem delighted, Ms. Keller said when we spoke. “They’re thrilled that Mom or Dad isn’t alone,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing — until somebody gets sick.”
Then, she has found, “it gets really blurry. Who’s going to do what?” Grown children don’t have much history with these new spouses; they often feel less responsibility to intervene or help out, and stepparents may be unwilling to ask. Perhaps it’s unclear whether children or new spouses have decision-making authority.
“Older couples in this situation fall through the cracks,” Ms. Keller said.
Research shows that the ties which lead adult children to become caregivers — depending on how much contact they have with parents, how nearby they live, how obligated they feel — are weaker in stepchildren, Dr. Silverstein said. Money sometimes enters the equation too, Ms. Keller added, if biological children resent a parent’s spending their presumed inheritance on care for an ailing stepparent.” Read more…
The comments prove to be well worth the read; full of anecdotes and questions about how to balance financially, relationally, and emotionally the caregiving needs of biological parents and countless constellations of stepparents and ex-stepparents. In the interviews that Elizabeth and I have conducted with Gen X caregivers, I think I was surprised, as someone who does not have stepparents, how basically all things boil down to simple dislike. In intact families, you can dislike people but somehow still love them. For example, I mother young children right now which means I say “NO” a LOT which means I also hear, “I hate you and you’re not my friend, Mommy!” a LOT. But my response back is basically, “Well, I still love you and I’m not your friend, I’m your Mommy.” But I’m beginning to see that in step families, where society often paints a stepparent as a “new friend,” this statement cannot be said back. Stepparents may not love their stepkids of any age, and stepkids may not love their stepparents. And thus, dislike is simply dislike. Are there outliers? Of course. But read through the comments at New Old Age, and I see that various levels of simple dislike or indifference often marks the relationship between stepparents and stepchildren of any age, which does not bode well for the already thankless and exhausting task of elder caregiving.
What will motivate us to care for the vulnerable old in the next 10-20 years? Hiring professional help is already out of reach for most Americans unless we decide to make Medicaid our de facto senior care system. Having spent some time in Medicaid Room and Board facilities though, I just can’t imagine Baby Boomers in general accepting that solution.