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Needing Elder Care When Family Is Missing

Evening Edition

— Lunch is served at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center in downtown San Diego. Elderly people sit around tables and chat up a din in the center’s assembly room. The people who dine here and use the services tend to live at or below the poverty level. But part-time staffer Peggy Shannon, who arrived here when she needed help, said the sense of community is very strong.

Queen Johnson, age 73, hopes she can rely on her "extended family" of close friends to help her when she becomes old and frail, since she has no spouse or children.
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Above: Queen Johnson, age 73, hopes she can rely on her "extended family" of close friends to help her when she becomes old and frail, since she has no spouse or children.

“They are just like family to me down here,” she said. “And I know that I can call on them anytime. If they need to take me to the doctor, or if I’m too sick to go grocery shopping, they’ll go for me.”

The need for that kind of support is keen among these old folks, many of whom either have no family or are separated from them by thousands of miles. Shannon, for instance, has three sons, none of whom live in San Diego.

Some people have compared the aging of the Baby Boom generation to a fleet of Titanics coming into the port of San Diego. Whether we have a dock big enough to receive the ships will depend on planning, and for most people it will also depend on family.

Steve Hall is a clinical services director who works at the wellness center. He said he often tries to contact family members when clients become infirm. It’s not unusual for him to come up empty.

“Many times, we ask for an emergency contact, for a family member… and there’s not anyone,” he said.

Special Feature KPBS Special Report: Aging In San Diego

At the beginning of 2011, the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation turned 65. Twenty-six percent of the U.S. Population are baby boomers, meaning 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 each and every day for the next two decades. In this series, we'll explore what this means for the San Diego community: from working past retirement to living alone, from learning music to making difficult decisions about end of life care. We'll explore what it means to grow old right here, in San Diego.

Aging alone is a product not only of individual realities, but also societal trends. Birth rates have fallen from nearly four children per woman, at the height of the Baby Boom, to less than two children in the late '70s.

Increasing mobility also means even if you have kids they may live far away.

San Diego State gerontologist Jong Won Min said this all happens against a backdrop of a society where fewer and fewer working adults are caring for more and more elderly people. He points to a series of demographic charts on his office computer. He notes one that looks like a pyramid representing recent years, with Baby Boomers forming a broad base of working adults.

But he said our society will change shape as boomers become elderly.

“Now if you go up, you can see a triangle shape changes to a silo,” said Min.

And if you think all of those Baby Boomers at the top of the silo in 2030 will rely on formal care in nursing homes, think again. Min said the past shows us informal care from family members is a crucial part of caring for the aging.

“There is a myth,” Min said, “that Americans are abandoning their families. In fact, no, that’s not true. About 75 percent of all the care-giving in the United States is provided by family members, or informal care.”

The people I spoke with at the senior wellness center had various answers to what they would do when it came time for someone to care for them. Queen Johnson, age 73, has no spouse or children. But she said she can rely on what she calls her “extended family,” which is her close circle of friends.

“I have a very good network that is an extended family since I don’t have children ,or brothers, or sisters,” said Johnson. “But I do have an extended family that is very supportive.”

Laura Swafford, age 72, has four children, who may help her out when she’s too old to take care of herself. I asked her if she’s thought about that.

“No I haven’t… I haven’t,” she said. “And the reason I haven’t is because I don’t want to be a burden on my children.”

Min said as old people have fewer offspring to depend on, public policy must find a way to provide more formal care for the elderly in San Diego, and lend support to informal care. He added that in his Korean background, the eldest son is expected to take care of his parents when they get old. His parent still live in Korea, and Jong Min is their eldest son.

“It comes with a huge sense of guilt, that I’m not there to help them with many things,” said Min.

Video by Nicholas McVicker

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