Should You Be Responsible For Your Parents’ Care?

Jane Gross over at the New Old Age Blog recently wrote a post about the prospect of enforced filial responsibility. Filial responsibility laws are patterned after Elizabethan Poor Laws and state that adult children are responsible for the basic needs of their parents, just as you would be for the basic needs of your spouse or your children. “Basic needs” includes food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

According to Ms. Gross, the filial responsibility laws are still on the books in 30 states, including California, Massachusetts, Indiana and Pennsylvania! (Gross includes a link in her post to a document listing all 30 states with filial responsibility laws.) These laws haven’t been enforced in a long time, but with the current economic crisis, and the rumor of dwindling Medicaid and Social Security resources as baby boomers age, is it such a far stretch to imagine that those laws may be enforced again someday? Perhaps even someday soon?

How hard would that be on the sandwich generation? It really wasn’t that long ago that elderly parents lived with their children. There was a time when it was not unusual to have three generations in one house; it was the norm, in fact.

Were these laws to once again be enforced, the real issue would not be food or shelter; rather, it would be medical care, daily home care, and length of life. The fact of the matter is that we are living longer today than we ever have. In some cases those added years are high-quality, but often those years are spent in a slow decline into Alzheimer’s or dementia, both of which eventually require round-the-clock care. With modern families generally needing two incomes just to stay afloat, where would that care come from?

This isn’t an issue that we necessarily need to worry about right now, but it is one that is important to consider. Most of us would choose to take care of our parents rather than see them out on the street, regardless of whether or not we were required to by law, but the cost of doing so rises every year—and rises with every year we add to the average life-span. What happens when it’s not just the impoverished elderly we need to worry about, but newly impoverished middle-agers as well?