From 1950 until today, life expectancy in the United States has gone from 68.14 to 79.11, according to Macrotrends. What this means is more midlifers or “young elderly” are facing a phenomenon that separates us from previous generations. We must deal with the care of and commitment to our parents who are living longer, and often with chronic illnesses, while we navigate the issues of becoming elderly ourselves.

As I set out to learn more about this trend, I didn’t have to look far. My mother-in-law is nearly 95 years old, God bless her, and although she is in good health, her issues involve memory and taking care of the daily functional activities that go into living in modern society. Using an average home phone with all its buttons and conveniences can present complications.

The phone rings for the fifth time many evenings, and it is my mother-in-law. My husband says gently, “Hi, Mom, we just spoke is everything alright?” She answers, “Hi, Steve.” My husband says, “Mom, it’s me, Gary, not Steve.” She replies, “But I know I called Steve.”

Managing her needs and requirements from a long distance for Gary, who is “young elderly,” is complicated and frustrating. All of the other relatives of her generation who lived nearby are gone now. And local relatives closer to where she lives cannot assist due to chronic health issues.

“I have less energy now myself, but I have more time. It is amazing that at 70 years old I still have a parent. But, as someone who has entered his senior years, I am more aware of my own physical limitations making it more difficult to be there for her the way I’d like to. Her reality starkly mirrors my own mortality.”

Right now, we can spend days and even weeks tracking down information to do things such as figuring out how to replace my mother-in-law’s ID card (her purse was swiped from where she left it), get her health care needs attended to, get her medications in order, etc. At 94 years old, she is together enough to know what she likes and dislikes but not astute enough to take care of details that go into living in the modern world, such as pin numbers, managing appointments, understanding what a doctor says to her, and any technology.

Good Teamwork is Essential

“Having a good “team” is important, according to Sheila, whose 103-year-old mother just passed away. “I had a great team of caretakers taking care of my mother, including my siblings,” she says. Sheila and her siblings lived in different states than their Mom. However, Sheila did spend several months a year in the same state as her mother. “We had great full-time caretakers, and my siblings and I could divide up other duties and decide on Mom’s care as a team. It really does take a village to care for the extreme elderly like my Mom.”

Everyone Everywhere All At Once 

“My close circle of friends has either experienced it or in the middle of it,” says Marsha S. She took care of her Mom, who lived close by for four to five years, with the burden gradually intensifying during the last two years of her Mom’s life. Her Mom just passed away late last year. “It started peaking when I got 30 phone calls a day.”

“I saw Mom almost every day. It was terrific that I could do that. And my children, who also live close by, stepped up to the plate to include grandma in their activities whenever possible. Seeing the kids including great grandma with love and pleasure was uplifting. It made me stronger.”

“Physically,” Marsha said, “I was so worn out. I was tending to my Mom and helping with my grandkids. My daughter and son-in-law were doctors, and during the height of Covid, I had to help. I knew I had to keep going. At first, we worried about seeing each other in person because of covid. But then we decided it was more important to see each other. ” 

“Many times, I just knew that I had to keep going…I had a great team, including my sister and her husband and family who live far away but helped financially.”

Oddly, even the helpfulness of others caused her some stress. “The aides we had hired sometimes fought amongst themselves about lateness and other things. Then Mom got Covid, and one of the aides got Covid. Even with a good team, there can be a lot of stress. I worried about the electrical power going out when there were hurricanes. I knew I couldn’t physically move my Mom on my own if the aides couldn’t come in. What if I got sick or injured. Then there were decisions about hospitals and hospice. There were so many things I had never worried about before. Sometimes it felt like a huge boulder quickly rolling downhill.”

Not Feeling Elderly Helps 

Jim describes how his Mom, at 85, broke her collarbone in her apartment a few years before the Covid lockdown and was found by the building’s maintenance crew unconscious on the floor 24 hours later. After the hospital and rehab, she went briefly into an assisted living facility and a nursing home. 

Despite dire medical predictions, the loneliness of the Covid lockdown, and the monotony of Zoom phone calls during this time, she is still alive. She does not like to leave her room and will fuss if someone tries to make her. But, as Jim points out, she also believes the Queen of England is coming to visit her and that she has slept with Tom Brady.

While Jim handles her paperwork and then goes over it with his sister, his sister lives closer to their mother and regularly visits. They both participate in monthly assessment calls with the social worker, nurse, and nutritionist.

But Jim does not feel he is “young elderly.” He says My peers talk about the things they can’t do anymore. Still, I don’t think that way.” But he does admit his Mom’s situation has” given him a perspective on my own eventual situation.” 

Sibling Stress and Honoring Medical Wishes

Steve just lost his 94-year-old Mom this past December. He watched his Mom take care of her mother even while she was still working full-time. Steve’s Mom did not live with him, but he saw her frequently and believed taking her places and caring for her needs was “a privilege.” His perspective is “sacrifices need to be made, yet the love you get in return from living together as different generations is worth it.

Steve is the middle sibling of three kids. There has been much drama and infighting in his family, centered around his mother. Everyone has a different kind of relationship with his Mom, and her death did not bring peace and reconciliation. Steve says his own participation lessened during her last years due to his sister’s control. Still, he continues, “I treasured the time I had with her, even when I was taking her to errands and doctors. It was time that I got to spend with her. And if I had been younger and still devoted to my law practice, I would not have been able to do as much for her.”

According to him, “We all had different connections to Mom. Because my sister was the primary caregiver for Mom, she essentially shut me out for many years. And then she weaponized Covid as far as the caregiving role.” 

He explained when his Mom got cancer late in her life, her wishes for no extraordinary measures were overruled by his sister, and she received experimental chemotherapy. 

The fine line was crossed between caring for a parent and listening to their wishes. Steve subsequently intervened to limit his sister’s involvement and ensure his Mom’s wishes were followed. Her final months were precious for him.

“I developed a relationship with Mom at the end that afforded us open and meaningful conversations that I would not have had 10 years ago. She lived alone in her apt until the last three weeks of her life. I got her to turn off the TV to talk…about hospice..the practical and emotional sides and the financial.”

According to Steve, despite his health issues, he could spend more time with his mother, have meaningful conversations, and care for her because he was older and not as involved with his career. 

Less Energy, More Time, Future Reality?

The realities of less energy but more time, less patience but more identification color the parameters of this baby boom phenomenon. Will this emerge as a trend for future generations or will this be a one-time phenomenon? With women and men becoming parents much later in life, this might be a one-generation situation. Only the future will answer this question.