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Divorce and Caregiving: A Complicated Relationship

Divorce can complicate¬†caregiving, especially for adult children and stepchildren. Taking care of divorced parents – ugh, potentially multiple sets of parents, in-laws, and their spouses, along with dealing with siblings, stepkids, half siblings, or stepsiblings – can be a challenge. Combine “too many cooks in the kitchen” with “so much to do, so little time!”

And then there are the slews of divorced caregivers who will require help themselves in the future. Today, one out of every three boomers is single, many due to divorce. Most split years back, but not all.

The demise of first-time, long-term marriages, a phenomenon dubbed “gray divorce,” is on the rise. The rate of divorce has doubled for the age 50+ demographic since 1990. Women, it turns out, initiate divorce two-thirds of the time.

For many, longevity plays a part. Realizing they’ve got decades ahead, they may decide they don’t want to spend it with someone they no longer love (“that jerk!”) and will have to take care of. And, unmarried boomers are two times as likely to be disabled as those who are wed. They’ll need help.

Who will be their caregivers? Women, regardless of marital status, tend to have a stronger support system than men. Sociologists and divorce experts wonder how fathers, in particular, will fare.

For a piece on divorce I wrote last month for the AARP Bulletin, I interviewed eminent sociologist Andrew Cherlin from Johns Hopkins University. Here are his thoughts:

“For the generation entering old age, the peak years of divorce were the 1970s and 1980s. Men are more vulnerable than women because mothers tended to keep the kids after divorce and some men didn’t stay in touch regularly. Will their kids take responsibility for helping them?”

Cherlin thinks that late life divorce and joint custody could benefit Dad, because he’s had more time with the kids, making them more willing to be a caretaker.

But wait: With a remarriage failure rate of 60 percent, stepchildren might not consider what happens to Mom’s ex their problem. And, with cohabitation becoming the “new marriage,” will Mom’s adult kids feel like becoming the medication manager, wheels and much more for her boyfriend?

What does this divorce talk mean? It may mean that if you’re divorced, you need to start thinking about your own caregiving situation. Maybe you won’t be able to count on your kids (and maybe you don’t have any).

Would you consider moving to an adult community? Living with a friend? There are many options. The best advice ever: Have a support system in place before you need it.

One more thing: For current or future caregivers whose parents are divorced, save your energy. You’re going to need it!

Sally Abrahms is the co-author of What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody. Follow her on Twitter @SallyAbrahms.