The New York Times has a story on adult children who give up or cut back on their careers to take care of their aged parents. They call this the “Daughter Track,” a parallel to the family-accommodating Mommy Track that some businesses have and many more ought to have. The article focuses on a woman who gave up a high profile, high paying media career in New York to go home to suburban Detroit to help take care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s.
The Times will be chided, no doubt, for treating a few rare cases of women giving up big careers for their families. Drop the big money and fame, though, and what we are dealing is the ordinary heroism of millions of adults who adjust their work to care for their aged parents. This group is part of the even larger group – the majority of all people on earth, in fact – who tailor their work lives to support their families. In that case, we don’t even see it as heroic, but the ordinary stuff of what life is about.
I do, though, want to praise the true sacrifice and care that the “sandwich generation” is increasingly called upon to give to their elderly parents. We have the largest group of old, and what gerontologists call “old-old” (post-75) people ever. This means that a larger number of middle-aged adults will be called upon to care directly for their parents than ever before. In fact, it seems likely that a larger proportion of middle-aged people will be called upon to care for their parents than ever before. This will make it necessary to create new social idioms, and new social types, for us all to grasp this new reality with. And the “Daughter Track” is one such new social type.
The most striking fact about the Daughter Track, as the name suggests, is that women are significantly more likely to be the ones the care for elderly parents. The Times article cites a study which found that of those spending more than 40 yours per week on care for their own parents, 71% were women. That women predominate in this group is not surprising. I was surprised, actually that the proportion of men was as high as it is. Moreover, the article suggests that it is childless women who are most likely to be the sibling most likely to do the caring.
The women cited in the story know that they are making a sacrifice in worldly terms. But they also make a point of saying that they are glad of the chance to give back to their parents, to care for them in their need. Some such care, no doubt, is more painful to give than others. And some elder care is just too hard to do alone: my mother-in-law, whose care for her own disabled mother I honor, gives the sage advice that you can’t care for people who are both demented and mobile by yourself. Not all care-taking children are as happy about it as those portrayed in the article.
Still, Daughter Care and Son Care are honorable at the individual level. Moreover, families who care for their dependent older members perform an irreplaceable service for society. There is not enough money in the world to pay for excellent care for the dependent old, just as there is no way to pay enough for excellent care of all the dependent young.