Generational differences in caregiving

Baby boomers have different expectations for retirement.

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Rosalynn Carter, former First Lady, famously said: “There are only four kinds of people in this world. Those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”

While it’s true that we’ll all be involved in caregiving in some way, caregiving has changed, thanks to the baby boomers and the changing social norms they’ve ushered in.

For example, when women in the Greatest Generation were younger, the societal understanding was that women wouldn’t work outside the home and could serve as caregivers for children and elders.

Many women today still identify as caregivers, but they’re more likely to hold other, competing roles, such as sole breadwinner or head of household.

These shifts in caregiving seem de rigueur for baby boomers, who are known for questioning authority and challenging the traditional family values, including gender roles held by the Greatest Generation.

Indeed, caregiving is an area in which significant differences between the generations are playing out.

Elder orphans

Experts predict that as baby boomers age, our country will see an increase in the number of older Americans who don’t have family members to serve as informal (non-health-related) caregivers to help them age in place and remain independent. Such men and women are often referred to as “elder orphans.”

Carina Storrs warned in her CNN.com article, The ‘Elder Orphans’ of the Baby Boom Generation: “Nearly a quarter of Americans 65 and older could become ‘elder orphans’ with no family to help care for them.”

Part of the reason for this increase in elder orphans is the social and family differences that are associated with boomers. Compared to the Greatest Generation, they’re more likely to be single as they approach older age and are less likely to have children (or may have fewer children), making them especially vulnerable.

While some families have resources to afford paid elder care, the country’s declining workforce means there’s already a scramble to fill paid caregiving positions.

There’s also a noticeable gap between baby boomers and the previous generation when it comes to saving money for retirement: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 11 percent of baby boomers reported that they had retirement savings, compared to 47 percent of those age 71 and older. These scenarios, combined with the fact that Americans are living longer, could have dire implications for our country.

Housing expectations

Caregiving in senior living facilities is another arena where differences between the generations are starting to unfold.

While most residents in senior communities are age 80 or older, that’s expected to change as baby boomers retire and downsize. Along with their belongings, boomers will bring their consumer savvy and preferences for individualized, engaging programming and activities.

Generally, boomers conduct more research on purchases than their parents and this affects how they approach housing and health care.

Marla Durben Hirsch wrote in the article Human Management in Healthcare: Hiring Right to Meet the Demands of Healthcare Reform that “Boomers are savvier, more discerning consumers than previous generations of seniors,” and they “desire to be active and maintain their well-being throughout retirement.”

Lindsay Brown, assistant executive director of Yorkshire of Edina, sees that in her daily work in the senior living community.

“Baby boomers are much more interested in the extra amenities like massage and more options for meals,” Brown said, adding that older seniors “aren’t used to spending money on themselves and enjoying the little extras, whereas their adult children can’t wait to move in.”


Tricia Theurer is a home care consultant for Home Instead Senior Care and the outreach manager for Nokomis Healthy Seniors in Minneapolis. She recently completed a master’s program in gerontology.