Sept 17 boomerangs

September 14, 2000|By KEVIN CLAPP

Family structures continue to change

The 1980s gave us Iran/Contra, the Challenger explosion and the S&L scandals.

It also yielded a serious adjustment in the family structure as a poor job climate and rising divorce rates forced children to return home to live with parents.

"That's a pretty big shift," says Merril Silverstein, professor of gerontology and sociology at University of Southern California. Despite economic prosperity in the '90s, it is not going away.

"With a booming economy and low unemployment, you would expect it to go away. It may have plateaued, but is still relatively high," he says. "I think it's now something seen as legitimate at any point along the way at a time of crisis."


The natural tendency for parents is to welcome their sons, daughters and sometimes grandchildren with open arms, says Barbara Ensor, a psychologist at Stella Maris, a nonprofit organization in Timonium, Md., that provides elder care. To avoid an uncomfortable situation, in which parents feel used and returning children feel cramped, respect and ground rules are essential.

Negotiation is a must

Establish ahead of time who will watch grandchildren and when, who will cook, shop, clean and do chores around the house. Answering these questions ahead of time can save either person from feeling resentful later.

"There has to be some negotiating, and the negotiation might end up being beneficial to both," Ensor says.

"Many parents today look forward to the empty nest age for spouses to get reacquainted with each other," Silverstein adds. "If that is not fulfilled, it can lead to resentment."

Stress created when tensions run high in a re-unified household can lead to high blood pressure or depression, but Silverstein is quick to point out there are good things about having the whole family under one roof.

In cases when middle-agers have children, grandchildren and their parents living with them, a lot of give and take must take place to make the situation work. But when it does, says Fred Otto, executive director of Washington County Commission on Aging, the benefits can be priceless as three or four generations get to know each other.

He says children establish a different frame of reference about their grandparents or great-grandparents.

Silverstein says the juggling of the family dynamic the last 20 years will continue to develop as the population ages and successive generations experience what middle-agers are beginning to encounter now.

What is most heartening, he says, is that the majority of families are not dissolving as children return, their lives in flux, to the safety of a parent's home.

"There are no real answers. There are two or three ways to look at this depending on the culture and economics," Silverstein says. "The middle generation, when they have to care, is performing heroically. The notion of the family disintegrating seems to be a myth."

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