May 1, 2019
When Gen Xers gather with friends, there is a common theme that pops up in the conversation. Whether at the kids’ softball game or over a glass of wine, the query comes with concern, and at times, hushed tones: “How are your parents doing?”
While this seems like a fairly innocuous question, as Gen X navigates their 40s and early 50s, they are commiserating more on the challenges associated with the aging of their Boomer parents. Gen Xers are seeing their parents struggle with issues ranging from physical ailments to financial fragility to loss of mental capacity. Further, Gen X has moved to the stage of life where they are actually losing their parents. All of a sudden, the surviving parent needs help like never before.
“This has been a very trying time,” says Donna Baxter Porcher, 50, who showcases minority entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh, PA and cares for her father. “My mother passed away five years ago. My dad has cancer that has spread, and he can no longer drive, barely has the strength to get out of bed, or take care of himself. He just recently came home after being in the hospital and nursing home for two months.”
Baxter Porcher isn’t alone. In Northwestern Mutual’s 2019 C.A.R.E. Study, only 56% of Gen Xers felt they had a choice when it came to caregiving. For those Gen Xers who are providing care, the average is eight hours daily – and usually for a parent.
These pressures are creating stress in the Gen X middle-age experience. Having moved into the Boomer’s role of caretaker, they may be questioning whether they are doing the right things for their parents. They don’t want to have regrets about how they supported their parents, but they also need to keep a firm boundary to protect their own financial interests. The constant struggle centers on what is the right thing to do in these situations.
Financially Fragile Boomer Parents
Unlike previous generations, there are segments of the Boomer population that are financially fragile – they have low savings, high debt and lack financial literacy. In these situations, Gen Xers need to understand from their parents how they had planned to get through retirement.
Isaac Kearns, a Gen Xer born in 1980 understands this. He and his siblings, who together own C and D Landscape Company and the franchise Weed Man in Dayton, Oregon, have been helping to manage their parents’ finances due to his father’s dementia. “The first financial challenge was downsizing their lifestyle to a reasonable budget,” he says. “Having them sell the house they raised us in and lived in for 37 years was a tough deal. We moved them into a smaller, brand-new home that was more appropriate to their needs.”
But downsizing your parents’ lifestyle will only help so much. Gen Xers often find that there is a gap in their parents’ planning, as many people need more than Social Security to support themselves in their later years. Finding the right income streams for Boomer parents to use means having these discussions before the parents need help.
Kearns and his siblings were able to use a mix of rent from one of their properties and sale of some stock to cover their parents’ expenses. But he notes that “My older brother did a great job helping my mom to downsize and live within a budget. My dad had always done that in their marriage, and when he got sick mom had to learn how to live on a set budget.”
Comfortable but Still Needing Financial Help
It isn’t just the financially fragile Boomers who need help from their Gen X children. While many Boomers have sufficient assets and are financially independent, at a certain point, they may not be capable of navigating their own finances.
Baxter Porcher’s father is a great example of this. He spent his life being financially prudent and organized. But the stress of his health issues undermines some of the financial preparedness he had structured. “Now I have to manage all that he has, including staying on top of car insurances for two cars, all of his house bills, taxes, medical bills, medical insurance, medication, different accounts, to being responsible for purchasing things he needs around the house and medical supplies that aren’t covered.”
In these situations, it is key for Gen Xers to understand where their Boomer parent wants them to step in. In Baxter Porcher’s case, recognizing her father’s frugal nature, she often just goes out and pays for whatever he needs. Even though he can afford to pay, he is not always in the best mental state to make such a decision.
“I couldn’t imagine it if my father was also struggling financially. I’m sure that would add to an already stressful situation,” she says.
Communication Is Key
As Gen X navigates this stage of life, communicating with their Boomer parent is key. If your Boomer parent is financially fragile, helping them develop retirement income and downsizing will be important. But with financially independent yet physically frail Boomer parents, it is going to be just as important to frame expectations appropriately. It will still be challenging but hopefully, with the right framework, it can be navigated.