‘Empty nests’ may be a thing of the past

Jordana Divon
Shine On

In many parts of the world a generational full house is considered the norm, but here in North America we’ve built entire sitcoms around empty nest syndrome – that golden time in a couple’s life when their children finally leave the family home.

Traditionally, it’s been a time when middle-aged parents get to rediscover all their interests and, more importantly, each other, without the same daily responsibilities and encumbrances that have made up their domestic lives for the past two decades.

Well, that scenario looks like it's changing.

A new study out of Oregon State University published in the Journal of Aging Studies claims that “empty nest” may soon become one of those historical oddities that future people discuss with wide-eyed, breathless fascination.

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As a rocky job market and increasingly unaffordable housing prices grind down the 35-and-under set, many are moving back in with their parents (or never even moving out in the first place).

And this reality is not limited to American. The 2011 Canadian census shows that 40 per cent of young Canadian adults between the ages of 20 – 29 are currently living at home with their parents.

On the other end of the age spectrum, older folks are living longer than ever, creating additional needs for their ongoing care. While retirement homes are an option for some, many children of aging parents lack the resources for expensive elder care assistance or simply don’t want to see them in an assisted living facility.

And so begins what researchers have coined “full nest syndrome” – a household comprised of three generations. But instead of creating a nexus of resentment, the study found that the folks in the middle of the equation are taking it all rather well.

“We mostly found very positive feelings about adults helping their children in the emerging adulthood stage of life, from around ages 18 to 30,” says Karen Hooker, director of the OSU Center for Healthy Aging Research, in a press release.

“Feelings about helping parents weren’t so much negative as just filled with more angst and uncertainty,” she continues. “As a society we still don’t socialize people to expect to be taking on a parent-caring role, even though most of us will at some point in our lives. The average middle-aged couple has more parents than children.”

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Researchers analyzed data compiled from six different focus groups.

They took a look at the different social, economic and cultural factors that have been at play since the economic downturn of 2008 and found that the combination of a badly hit housing market, poor job prospects and the demand for higher education all colluded to keep young adults from branching out on their own as early as previous generations.

And due to medical advancements, the elderly are living longer than ever, although not necessarily in fine form. It’s the latter rather than the former that seems to be putting strain on the people who have been dubbed the “sandwich generation” for their spot in the middle of two needier groups of people.

This new reality has created a bit of a mixed bag of emotions.

“It brings my heart joy to be able to provide for my mom this way,” one study participant tells researchers. But “[t]here are times when it’s a burden and I feel resentful.”

As a result, many parents are considering what they can do to avoid becoming a similar burden on their children. These considerations include better long-term planning for old age – an enormous financial commitment that cuts into what’s left these days of everyone’s retirement funds.

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This line of thinking also leads to some rather sombre reflections on the future.

“I don’t care if I get old, I just don’t want to become debilitated,” one participant admits. “So I would rather have a shorter life and a healthy life than a long life like my mom, where she doesn’t have a life. She doesn’t have memories. Our memories are what make us who we are.”

So while the strains may be marked, most parents are quite happy to have a few extra years with their children, while caring for aging parents has led many to be proactive about their own long-term care.

Hopefully their own children will be willing to help them out as well as they’re being helped out now.