Senior Splits: What Happens when Parents Divorce Late in Life

Whether you are the parent or the child, divorce is traumatic at any age. It can be especially difficult, though, when it happens later in life.

Divorce Late in Life: elderly couple sits apart

Growing up, you might have been the only one of your friends whose parents weren’t divorced. Then you went off to college and started a life and family. Now you’re an adult, and you’re raising your kids, and you find out that your ageing parents are getting a divorce. Suddenly, you’re a child again, trying to make sense of your world, even as you struggle to help your parents through this unexpected trauma. When parents divorce late in life, it's never easy. Here's how to deal with it.

Here's What Happens when Parents Divorce Late in Life

It doesn’t matter how grown you are. Your family can be healthy and thriving. Your marriage can be idyllic, and your children the picture of health and joy. You can have more degrees than a thermometer and all the professional success in the world.

But when you learn your parents are divorcing, no matter your age, you will feel as hurt and shaken as any child. The important thing is to practice extreme self-care as you navigate your way through this transition. After all, you can’t hope to take care of your parents if you don’t first take care of yourself.

One of the most difficult challenges in this process is not feeling compelled to pick a side. If your parents choose to divorce late in life, that probably means there’s a significant reason. And a significant reason is likely going to mean high conflict.

But it’s vital to remember that both your parents need you, and you need both your parents. Whatever it was that led to the decision to divorce is between your parents. It was their marriage, not yours. 

That doesn’t mean you need to condone or excuse bad behavior. You certainly shouldn’t support abuse or infidelity. But condemning the bad behavior doesn’t mean condemning the person or your relationship. 

No matter what your age, though, as the child in the equation, it’s easy to be sucked into your parents’ little acts of unconscious (and sometimes conscious) aggression against each other. You might find yourself playing the messenger between parents who are no longer speaking. Or you might find yourself privy to information that even an adult child shouldn’t know.

The key is to establish clear boundaries with both of your parents. Ensure that your parents know and acknowledge that your relationship with one parent does not diminish your relationship with the other. 

As each parent learns to live without their spouse, they will both need you. And you are going to need them both.

Financial Fallout

It isn’t just the emotional fallout of senior divorce that you have to be wary of. Divorce can also have devastating financial consequences. 

One of the first issues is likely to be who keeps the family home. Will one parent remain and take over the mortgage payments, if there are any? Will they buy their former spouse’s stake in the house, or will they sign the deed as-is? Or maybe the best bet for all involved will be to sell the house and split the profits.

Depending on your parent's age and health, you might find yourself providing financial support, especially if your parents had maintained a single-income home. If one parent relied exclusively on their spouse’s income, they might find themselves in a difficult job market. 

Age discrimination in hiring is illegal, but it’s also all too real, especially if it is accompanied by a significant gap in employment. So, helping your parent find a job post-divorce will likely mean getting very familiar with the current job market, the trends, and what employers are looking for.

Health Matters

Helping your parents through a late-age divorce will mean paying close attention to their physical and mental health. Divorce is one of life’s greatest stressors, and your parents will be at heightened risk for physical and mental illness, including depression and anxiety.

After all, divorce is a tremendous life adjustment. It may have been decades since your parents were single. No matter what led up to the divorce, they will inevitably be mourning the loss of the relationship, the loss of their dreams of what their marriage might have been. 

That means they will likely be experiencing both the physical and the emotional effects of grief and worry, from sleeplessness to an elevation in blood pressure and heart rate. They may have difficulty eating or, conversely, may begin overeating. They may begin sleeping too much or self-isolating.

The latter is especially concerning because, in the age of COVID-19, we’re all battling anxiety over the virus and the turmoil of the disruption in our normal lives. Your parents are probably feeling all this strife especially acutely, the upheaval of the divorce mirroring and even magnifying the upheaval of our lives under the pandemic. 

As your parents face these challenges, they will be at risk not just for depression but for physical illness. As they battle anxiety, loneliness, and grief, this can compromise cardiovascular function and immune health

This can be especially worrying, of course, if your parent has lost health insurance because of the divorce. When they’re also facing loss or significant reduction of income, you should explore options for Medicare or Medicaid coverage. Your parent may be eligible for more benefits than they realize, and that can be a tremendous comfort and aid in a challenging time.

The Takeaway

Divorce is traumatic at any age, whether you are the parent or the child. It can be especially difficult when parents divorce late in life. You may find yourself helping your parents through circumstances you never thought possible, from selling the house to entering the job market. What matters most, though, is to remember that you are still a family, and no divorce can change that. As a child of divorcing seniors, or as the divorcing senior him/herself, the key to navigating these troubled waters is to take care of yourself and your loved ones. The marriage may have ended, but the love between a child and both their parents never can, never will, and never should.

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