Could this family’s plan to age in place be an example for baby boomers?

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The first baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1965 – turned 75 last year. How will this demographic group, which represents a quarter of the Canadian population, adapt to aging? An excerpt from “Front-Wave Boomers: Growing (Very) Old, Staying Connected, and Reimagining Aging” by Gillian Ranson.

We know that first wave baby boomers have a history – in part, from the life course perspective described in the previous chapter, the result of their passage through a particular historical period, based in part on the individual choices they made and the particular paths they followed along the way.

But we must also take into account their current situation by recognizing the relationships in which they are embedded, the lives with which their own are linked – in short, the social convoys with which they travel.

For most people, families are places where social convoys begin to build. We take them with us as we (and the people who inhabit them) age. Over time, these convoys usually change and grow. Of all the people I spoke with, few illustrated this growth and change more clearly than Larry and Jennifer.

Thirty years ago, while looking to settle down and buy a house not too far from Toronto, Larry’s father and mother-in-law had a suggestion. They were snowbirds who spent half their time in the United States. They wanted a Canadian home base and they also wanted to support Larry and Jennifer. A duplex arrangement in which Larry’s father and stepmother would pay the tenants seemed like a good option.

Larry and Jennifer accepted. They bought a two-level duplex in Burlington and moved into the downstairs unit. Larry’s parents, when they were there, lived upstairs. Over time, two generations became three when Larry and Jennifer’s two children arrived.

The most remarkable thing about this arrangement was its length.

With some modifications, it was still in place in October 2019 when Larry, Jennifer and I got in touch. In the early years, grandparents gave loving attention to grandchildren (who also spent time with them in their American home during the summer). Common houses became a family center for close-knit brothers and sisters on both sides of the family.

Over time, things have changed. Bill, the grandfather, 90 at the time of this first conversation, was generally healthy and in good spirits, but was slowly losing his short-term memory. He needed more care, and Larry and Jennifer worked with his 80-year-old wife, Helen, to provide it. Five years earlier, Larry had remodeled the downstairs unit to make it more senior-friendly. Bill and Helen moved downstairs, and Larry and Jennifer moved upstairs. Larry did all the chores and much of the cooking. The plan was to take care of Bill and Helen at home for as long as possible.

Larry and Jennifer were then 63 and 65 years old. The multi-generational model they established had lasting effects. Their daughter, married and mother of a newborn, lived in the same community. She announced that she and her husband will “take care” of Larry and Jennifer’s care when they are older. Their son lived in Vancouver but said he would be happy to return to the neighborhood in the future.

While this multigenerational pattern of family life and caregiving is common in immigrant and Indigenous communities, in Canadian families as a whole it is rare. As Larry and Jennifer described it, it was an unusual but very happy situation. “It may seem special to other people, but we’ve been going through this for 30 years now,” Larry said.

It wasn’t just the living conditions that made this story special. Other family members lived in close geographic proximity, and siblings, as well as children and grandchildren, were emotionally close.

Jennifer remarked, “I’m always amazed when I hear people who don’t talk to their siblings. It’s so foreign to me. I do not understand. Finally, even though this was Larry’s second marriage, he and Jennifer had been together for over 30 years.

Their situation was notable because it was no longer representative of family life for many older baby boomers. Although a large proportion of Canadians in this age group had children, there was no guarantee that their children would be within reach as adults.

The realities of a global economy made it likely that they would work and raise families elsewhere. This assumes, of course, that they start families in the first place. As the previous chapter also noted, the millennial offspring of the baby boomer cohort are slow to have children, if any.

If they have any, they have less than their ancestors. For many baby boomers, fatherhood could be delayed or ruled out. Then there was the significant minority of first wave baby boomers who had no children or grandchildren – and the number, with or without children, who had no partner.

All this suggested a great diversity of family contexts. There may or may not be children or grandchildren living nearby or not. Multigenerational ties, partner relationships, and other family ties varied similarly. And all that said nothing about quality relationships.

The question of who counted as family for this group was therefore important. This is exactly the question that sociologist Ingrid Connidis, a leading Canadian expert on aging, also posed.

Connidis suggests that count can be understood in three ways. It could be a count – literally, the number of people in the family group (however family was included). This could refer to who mattered, which relationships made sense to people. It could also mean people you could rely on.

Connidis writes: “Asking who can be counted on raises the question of which family members older people can count on when they need help – who will help them when needed. For young and old alike, the corollary of the question, who can I count on? is the question, will someone need to rely on me?

Various family backgrounds and differences in who mattered showed up in the many family stories I heard and others I learned along the way. I pursued these stories because – when you want to know, as I did, who was in people’s lives and, ultimately, who could be counted on – families were a good place to start. I started with the stories closest to my home.

Retrieved with permission from Front-Wave Boomers: Growing (Very) Old, Staying Connected, and Reimagining Aging by Gillian Ranson, 2022, On Point Press, an imprint of UBC Press. For more information visit www.ubcpress.ca

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