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One of Tom’s favorite couples was facing a challenge during the transition to the husband’s retirement. The husband was a Caucasian American, and the wife was Taiwanese. In Taiwanese culture, retirement is viewed very positively. Retirement signals the accomplishment of a lifetime of work and support for one’s family. Additionally, aging is viewed more positively in Taiwanese culture than here in the United States. These cultural perspectives

 

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influence how the husband more negatively experienced retirement and how the wife had difficulty understanding this life transition. They were both gainfully employed throughout their marriage, even working at the same company. They had been married for over thirty years and had successfully raised and launched three children, two sons and a daughter. Since his retirement, both spouses reported increasing anger and arguments. In discussing the meaning of the retirement, the issues came to light. The wife viewed retirement in solely positive terms—as a much-deserved reward for a lifetime of hard work and providing for the family. The husband would have time to do everything he always wanted—golf, play with grandchildren, vacation. However, the husband experienced retirement as a loss—a loss of an important aspect of his identity. As part of his grieving process, he was experiencing profound sadness, guilt, and purposelessness. When he tried to communicate these feelings to his wife, she had difficulty understanding them, as she viewed retirement very differently. Therapy mostly involved exploring the meaning of retirement and how identity for both partners could expand outside of work.

Minor tensions can arise because retired husbands spend so much time at home. One elderly woman compared the development in her marriage to having an ever-present twin: “He’s always right there under my feet! I’m not used to it, and I don’t know what to do with him being home all day long.” His constant presence interfered with her freedom to socialize with female friends and to run the household on her own. A retired husband with few friends and interests outside the home may find himself at a loss as to how to fill the day and become overly dependent on his wife in retirement.

Retired couples face two major crises: illness and death. The first crisis occurs when one of the spouses becomes seriously ill, making it necessary for the other spouse to become the caregiver. Since husbands are usually older than their wives and women have a longer life expectancy, the wife is more likely to find herself in the caregiver role. Even minor illness can provoke tension when one spouse assumes the burden of caring for the other. The healthy spouse also lives with the fear that the other will get worse and die.

Both physical and emotional illness can greatly affect the quality of a marriage relationship. The increase in life expectancy means that a larger number of people will suffer a debilitating condition such as Alzheimer’s or

 

 

Parkinson’s disease. It is estimated that 50 percent of all marriages will reach a point where one of the spouses develops some form of dementia.

As a couple’s time and energy focus more on a debilitating illness, their involvement with other couples and friends decreases. At this time, they need assistance from adult relatives. Without help from other family members, the caregiving spouse can become overburdened and stressed beyond the ability to cope. When both spouses are too ill to care for themselves, the extended family must enter the picture to arrange for care.

The death of a spouse is the final phase. Although death can be a relief in the case of a severe illness, it usually comes as a numbing shock to the surviving partner and other family members. Free from the responsibilities of children and work, the lives of elderly partners usually revolve around each other, resulting in mutual emotional and physical dependency. Thus, the death of a beloved partner often leaves the surviving spouse seriously depressed. Frequent crying, withdrawal from others, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, fatigue, declining health, and lack of interest in life are common symptoms. It is not unusual for a surviving spouse whose health is also failing to give up on life and die shortly after the death of the partner. (For a scholarly discussion of widowhood and its negative effects, see Ennis and Majid 2020.)

It seems that the wider supportive network of friends that characterizes widows, compared to widowers, helps women adjust better to living after the death of their spouse. In addition, older women gain independence through social networks due to their greater potential to “have bridging potential in their networks—between both kin and non-kin contacts” (Cornwell 2011, 782).

Although we might expect that people who are most dependent on their spouses will be more devastated by their deaths, this is not necessarily the case. A study by Carr (2004, 220) found that “women who were most emotionally dependent on their spouses had the poorest self-esteem while still married, yet evidenced highest levels of self-esteem following the loss. Men who were most dependent on their wives for home maintenance and financial management tasks experienced the greatest personal growth following loss.” From this we conclude that highly dependent spouses have or can learn the capacity to gain self-confidence when they are forced to manage on their own.

 

 

Caring for Aging Family Members Adult children are called on to care for their dependent elderly members

when chronic illness or death strikes. Although such responsibility causes a certain amount of strain, a study of patients with advanced cancer shows that hope is an important ingredient that not only eases one’s ability to cope with stressful situations but also reduces caregiving strain (Lohne, Miaskowski, and Rustoen 2012). Extended-family systems take for granted the care of elderly parents by adult children. In nuclear-family systems, care for elderly parents may be more problematic. After their children leave home, parents pride themselves on their desire and ability to live their remaining years by themselves. Single adult children and those in dual-career families may not be able to stay home to care for elderly parents. Some are also caring for boomerang adult children, a situation that leaves little time and energy to take in elderly parents. Health and financial problems may also deter adult children from caring for their elderly parents.

A new perspective on adult children caring for aging family members has been described as intergenerational ambivalence (Willson, Kim, and Elder 2003; Pillemer and Luscher 2004). Intergenerational ambivalence is a theory in family gerontology that addresses positive and negative features of intergenerational relationships. Ingrid Connidis and Julie Ann McMullin (2002, 565) define ambivalence as “socially structured contradictions made manifest in interaction.” Family members with fewer options are more likely to resolve ambivalence through acceptance rather than confrontation. Family members exercise agency as they negotiate relationships within the constraints of social structure. One study of middle-aged persons caring for elderly parents found that the caregivers reported more quality of life problems than noncaregivers (Roth et al. 2009).

By comparing and contrasting alternative models of intergenerational family relationships, Vern Bengtson and his colleagues (2002) identify the likely path to intergenerational ambivalence. They conclude that intergenerational relations begin with solidarity, the bonds of cohesion that hold a family together, followed by conflict, as the ideal relationship evolves into reality, with the intersection of solidarity and conflict resulting in intergenerational ambivalence (575).

Modern industrial societies seem to consist largely of modified extended families in contrast to truly nuclear families. Even though parents may live apart from their adult children and grandchildren, they are interdependent and

 

 

receive emotional, social, and economic support. Thus, the care of aging parents is more a question of how it is to be done than whether it is to be done. The children will inevitably be involved in one way or another.

The sandwich generation is a term that has been coined to refer to couples who are in mid- to late midlife, who may be looking forward to retirement but find themselves caring for both aging parents and children. While their elderly parents may increasingly need financial, emotional, and social assistance, their young adult children may need continued support as they struggle to find financial independence. This dual responsibility can result in couple burnout, especially among dual-earner couples who need to not only balance work and home life but also find time for other family members and their own marriages (Pines et al. 2011). Results from national surveys of women aged fifty-five through sixty-nine in Great Britain and the United States showed “around one-third of the women reported providing help to members of both generations. . . . Having three or more children is associated with a reduced likelihood of providing help to a parent” (Grundy and Henretta 2006, 707).

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