Cost More a Concern than Quality In Future Care for Elderly Parents

How baby boomers deal with role reversal in caring for aging parents.

June 25, 2007 — -- Most baby boomers think their aging parents have good options for quality health care when they can no longer look after themselves. But the cost is another matter.

Watch ABC News broadcasts and read USA Today this week for reports in the series, "Role Reversal: Your Aging Parents and You."

Only a third of boomers in this ABC News/USA Today poll think their parents have good choices when it comes to the expense of senior care. That compares with 57 percent who think the alternatives are good in terms of the quality of care, rather than its cost.

Some speak from experience: Four in 10 baby boomers with a living parent (including a stepparent or parent-in law) currently are providing them with some kind of assistance -- more often personal care than financial help. And one in four (27 percent) has a parent living somewhere other than on their own -- in a nursing home or assisted-care facility (12 percent), with them (eight percent) or with another relative (eight percent more).

For many more, issues of elder care may lie ahead: Among all baby boomers -- adults born between 1946 and 1964 -- the vast majority, 73 percent, have a living parent, stepparent or parent-in-law. "Role Reversal: Your Aging Parents and You" is the subject of a network-wide ABC News special the week of June 25.

How many boomers will be called on to help their parents is an open question. Six in 10 currently do not provide ongoing personal care (such as checking in regularly or helping with appointments) or financial assistance for their aging parents. Most in this group, 55 percent, don't think they'll be called upon to provide help in the future.

Concerns about elder care peak among those boomers who do expect to be called on to assist with their parents' care in the future. In this group -- just over a fifth of all boomers -- 72 percent are concerned about their parents' future care, and a third are "very" concerned about it.

By contrast, boomers who are not providing assistance now and don't expect to provide it in the future are much less apt to express concern about the issue -- just 31 percent are concerned, including 13 percent "very" concerned.

Among those who do provide assistance now, there's some associated stress: Just under half, 45 percent, say assisting their parents has caused some stress in their lives. Few of them, nine percent, say it's caused a "great deal" of stress -- although nine percent of nearly 60 million baby boomers with living parents makes for plenty of highly stressed people.

Three in 10 boomers say providing ongoing parental assistance has caused some stress in their relationship with their siblings; others report some stress with their spouse (22 percent), the parent receiving assistance (22 percent) or children (15 percent). Again few, two to 10 percent, report a "great deal" of care-related stress in any of these relationships.

This relative lack of high-level stress likely relates to an absence of major sacrifices in providing parental assistance. A little over a third of boomers providing care say they have not had to make any sacrifices in their own quality of life to do so. Fifty-four percent have made minor sacrifices; again few, 11 percent, have made "major" sacrifices.

Nor is there especially broad guilt: Among those providing assistance, 72 percent feel they're doing the right amount for their parents and only 24 percent feel they should be doing more. Hardly any -- four percent -- feel they're doing too much.

Missing work is a potential cause of stress, and among boomers who work outside the home, 26 percent say they've taken time off during the last year to help provide care for a parent. But for most by far it hasn't caused much conflict: Eight in 10 say their employer has been helpful in giving them the time off they've needed.

Stress is moderate even for the so-called "sandwich" boomers, who have children of their own for whom they're still financially responsible, as well as aging parents. Fifty percent of these boomers with kids experience some stress resulting from their role assisting their parents. But just 11 percent say it's a lot of stress.

Sandwich boomers account for about a third (35 percent) of baby boomers. It may seem counterintuitive that they're no more likely than others to be stressed by assisting a parent, or, for that matter, to be concerned about providing future care. But there's a likely reason: Sandwich boomers have higher incomes than other boomers, likely because more of them are married and thus living in dual-income households. They have greater responsibilities, but also greater resources.

(Specifically, 58 percent of sandwich boomers have household incomes over $75,000, compared with just 34 percent of other boomers. And 80 percent are married, compared with 61 percent of others.)

Just over six in 10 boomers say they (or someone else in their family) have discussed with their parents how to handle their future health care options; an additional 15 percent say their parents have taken care of it themselves. That leaves just 19 percent who say it's been entirely unaddressed.

Fewer, though, have looked into specifics. About half of boomers (49 percent) say either they, their parents or someone else in the family has looked into future health care options for when their parents no longer can care for themselves. Essentially as many (47 percent) haven't yet done any research.

What people find apparently can be reassuring: Concern about providing future care is lower among people who already have looked into the issue, or whose parents have looked into it on their own; and these people also are more likely to rate the quality of care options as good. But most still rate the cost negatively.

Among the 52 percent of boomers who personally have discussed future health care options with their parents, six in 10 percent say it was an easy discussion to have. Thirty-eight percent say it was difficult, including 10 percent "very" difficult. And of those who say it's not been addressed, the vast majority say that's because it hasn't seemed necessary -- rather than to avoid the conversation.

More than half, 54 percent, also say they have discussed their parents' future care options with other family members. There's no widespread conflict there: Among them, 89 percent say the family generally agrees on how to proceed with elder care.

This ABC News/USA Today poll was conducted by telephone May 24-June 3, 2007, among a random national sample of 500 adults aged 42 to 61 who have a living parent. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by The Gallup Organization of Princeton, N.J.

Click here for PDF version with full questionnaire and results.

For more ABC News polls visit the Poll Vault here.