March 24th, 2008

You can go home again—at fifty?

It’s not news that in times of economic strife, grownup children often go back to live with their parents, if they’re desperate enough or shameless enough and the parents are kind enough to have them. And since this is a time of economic strife, it’s not surprising that some empty-nesters are seeing their fledglings return for a little R&R.

However, a few of the recent returnees are a little long in the tooth, to mix zoological metaphors. A new and startling phenomenon appears to be on the rise, according to reports from financial planners: the return of the 50-something “child” to the parental manse, this time for quite a bit longer than the usual few days’ obligatory visit.

If the offspring is now in his/her fifties, that means the parent or parents involved would be at least in their seventies and often eighties. Some of the parents feel a financial pinch, but others are in good economic and physical shape and happy for the company and the ability to be of service to children they’ve always loved.

There are those offspring who would rather live in the meanest of hovels than move in with parents as adults, and its not always because they don’t want to inflict a burden on said parents, either. Sometimes the psychological burden of feeling infantilized and having all those hair-trigger buttons pressed on a regular basis—not to mention the mortification of having to fess up to living with a parent when one is an adult oneself—is too much for the “child” to bear. But apparently there is a growing group of people who have a smooth enough relationship with parents to swallow whatever pride they might have in order to reap the perceived economic benefits.

There are some societies in which it’s normal for adult generations to live together, and even expected. Ours is most definitely not one of them. The exception is when a grown child invites an elderly parent to live with him/her because it’s the parent who needs the help and the care. This is considered fine, and even noble, although self-sacrificing and often stressful.

On the other hand, when middle-aged boomers return to live with their elderly parents it seems a reversal of the natural order of things. We place a premium on independence in adulthood, and I imagine it would be a source of deep shame to most people (myself included) to feel pressed enough to make the decision to regress to this earlier state.

It’s easy to condemn them as natural-born freeloaders and failures; lacking in initiative, drive, and pride; and no doubt that’s absolutely true of many. But others may be staying for just a while to get restored to financial health (or at least viability), and giving their parents some much-needed companionship in the process.

Most of us leave home as teenagers and never come back for more than a few days at a time. Most of us don’t want to, and it’s not because we don’t love our parents. If I had had to live for any significant amount of time with my parents after I’d left for college at the ripe old age of seventeen, I think all of us would have ended up tearing our hair[s] out. Luckily, I’ve never had to, and I want to keep it that way (although it’s moot, since there’s no parental home left).

Once we grow up, “home” is usually the home we create for ourselves as adults. That’s the way we want it, and that’s the way it is for most of us, fortunately.

And since Frost so often has something meaningful to say about almost everything, I’ll close with his ruminations on returning “home.” It’s from his poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” about a very different situation—a man who once worked on the farm of a younger married couple returns unexpectedly when elderly and ill, and they have to decide whether to take him in or not (it’s the husband and wife speaking here):

“Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”

“Home,” he mocked gently.

“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

[ADDENDUM: Dr. Helen weighs in on some of the more practical aspects of the same subject.]

11 Responses to “You can go home again—at fifty?”

  1. Bugs Says:

    I think my own mother dreams of having me move back home. On the other hand, my father and I would probably end up killing each other. (He’s a trained killer, but he’s really, really old – so I figure we’re about evenly matched now.) I’d have to say moving back home would be a psychological disaster on many levels.

    Or, as Grouch Marx put it:

    “Living with your folks… living with your folks… the beginning of the end. Drab, dead yesterdays shutting out beautiful tomorrows. Hideous, stumbling footsteps creaking along the misty corridors of time. And in those corridors I see figures… straaange figures… weeeird figures: Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Can 138.”

  2. Rick Says:

    Speaking as a loser who did live with his parents after I should have, for an extended period no less, sometimes it is needed. I encountered certain disasters on my way to adulthood. My parents put me up for a while when I was recovering. For that I am eternally grateful. And the result was that I grew up so most likely I won’t be returning in my 50′s. On the other hand, having experienced various disasters, I have sympathy for people in those desperate circumstances. Given the total lack of stability that has become part of modern life. Sometimes one needs help. One only need feel ashamed or embarassed if one never gets back on one’s feet again.

  3. Perfected democrat Says:

    Excellent comments Rick, people are quite pretentious, and smug about others. Some of it is cultural, too, extended families living together is very common, especially where economic circumstances dictate the need to share lives. I hope to bring my father (95) home near the bitter end, if possible, to keep him out of a nursing home… that isn’t so much different than if he let me come “home” because of misfortune or simply being of humble identity.

  4. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I will guess that the sudden increase is overblown. It times of actual tragedy, people have always moved in with relatives, and grown children moving in with their parents is just one aspect of this.

    Also, moving in with parents to help them through their declining years – which we do not cast aspersions on – versus moving in for one’s own needs is not always a clean distinction. Sometimes the situation is mutually beneficial, and who is depending on whom a matter for debate.

    Just asking…have they found a way to blame it on Bush?

  5. Foxfier Says:

    I helped my Mom through a knee replacement surgery this time, last year.

    Some folks think I was just “avoiding work” in that time–I had my own place, but stayed with mom and dad for most of it, because Dad needed the help on the ranch.

    On an side-topic…I cried when I read that poem.

    I can see that in my life experience– we have a hired man on the ranch who is very close. He can’t really do much, but we keep him because home is someplace they have to accept you.

    Thank you for the good cry.

  6. Typical White Person Says:

    Hey, if all parties accept the situation then why would anyone else care? It’s not your money, your house or your living situation so concentrate on your own lives.

    Now if biased media decides to make a political issue out of it, that’s another story.

  7. camojack Says:

    Well, I’m 50 now…and I could probably go live with my mother; she’s got plenty of room.

    My father, OTOH, has a small house…

  8. SteveH Says:

    I tried moving back once. I think it was after the second week of asking my mother not to make up my bed or wash my clothes that i couldn’t take it any more.

    Its possible to love someone enough that you can never live with them it seems.

  9. njartist Says:

    I moved back to my Mother’s when I needed to retrain; I could move back out despite her being 92: so what if she falls and dies within two weeks. I could send her to one of my brother’s homes: their marriages would be over in less than a year as her poison destroys their marriage: but what the hell, at least no one would able calling me weak or a wimp.

    Screw duty: what’s important is that no one think you’re weak.
    The bible states quite clearly that one is not to turn their back on their own blood.

    And, given what I’ve seen in the Chinese community as they help each other, I deeply suspect that this animosity is a white disease.

  10. Americaneocon Says:

    I saw this on the news, and was joking to my 12 year-old that we’d keep his room available!


  11. holdfast Says:

    I would never go back by choice, but I know that in a real emergency my folks would have me. It’s nice to know that – and I’ll try very hard to repay their generosity by never taking them up on it. I think it really only becomes problematic where the offspring (can’t say child) is leaching off of the parents’ scarce resources or using the arrangement as a way to hide from their life (or lack thereof).

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