Rewriting the Rules: How Boomers Will Deal with Death

By Rybarski, Michael | Aging Today, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview
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Rewriting the Rules: How Boomers Will Deal with Death


Rybarski, Michael, Aging Today


Just as they've reinvented or modified every life stage they've entered, the baby boom generation is beginning to rewrite the way America deals with life's final chapter. A major new trend among boomers is to crack open the taboo, question institutionalized approaches to death and replace them with a more personalized, more human model. The geometric growth of hospice care and alternative approaches to funerals, including the increase in cremation and casket stores, indicate that traditional and institutional approaches to the end of life are now undergoing boomerization.

Economics accounts for part of this change. Institutional programs for the end of life are expensive-two to 20 times more expensive than the alternatives. But there is more to it than cost. As they plan for the end of life, often for their parents these days, issues of control, increased choice and a new search for meaning and ritual motivate boomers. The expense and sterility of extended hospital care and one-size-fits-all funerals no longer cut it. They want better ways to say "so long."

THE LAST TABOO

In the way of that goal is a lack of knowledge. The end of life remains the last great taboo, about which much of U.S. culture remains silent. As they are wont to do, boomers are breaking the taboo, looking for choices and opening up a dialogue about the end of life. As with the sexual revolution, the end of life is surrounded by myths and half-truths. For instance, in all 50 states, one can have a funeral at home or in a church without using a funeral home. For more than 20 years, federal rules have allowed consumers to purchase caskets and monuments independently of funeral homes, but few know this. Hospice care is entirely paid for by Medicare and can save families thousands of dollars and a lot of grief, but again, many don't realize they have a choice. One reason for this lack of knowledge is a lingering discomfort with thinking and talking about death. Another is a self-interested unwillingness among healthcare and funeral advisers to offer alternative information.

However, the death-care industry is becoming polarized. Options are emerging: home-based hospice care is providing an alternative to hospitals; individualized care and customized burial and memorial services are starting to replace prefabricated funeral home offerings.

Demographics are power, and the cultural impact of the boomers is largely driven by their numbers. When 75 million people confront an issue, it becomes culturally significant. Currently, there are 2.4 million deaths in the United States annually. That figure has remained constant for years. By 2040, though, the total will double to 4.1 million deaths per year, as boomers begin to die in greater numbers. By then, odds are that the process of dying-and the death-care industry-will be substantially altered to fit the boomer generation's needs. It is not the immediate death of the boomers that will drive that change, but the need for them to address the issues surrounding the death of their parents. Psychologically, emotionally, financially and culturally, those changes are occurring today.

Psychographic and socioeconomic forces that have shaped the cohort experience of boomers and their parents are forging this new face of death. Evident among these forces is the extended life expectancy of healthy and ill people alike. When the first boomers were born in 1946, their parents, were unlikely to contemplate the prolonged end-of-life care for their parents made possible by today's medical resources. Also, most grandparents lived in their adult years within 15 miles of the town where they were born. Burial rituals were well established and required little planning or forethought. People who lived close together often shared similar ethnicity, religious beliefs and cultural traditions. When the parents of the Greatest Generation began to die, there was no confusion-and little choice-about what to do.

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