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The Age Wave: What It Means for Families

by Philip B. Stafford

The longevity revolution, sometimes called the "age wave," has certainly been in the news lately, and with good reason. Never before in our history have so many people lived such long lives. There are certainly important public policy implications surrounding the aging of the population worldwide. One implication is, unfortunately, off the radar: Adults with developmental disabilities are also part of the age wave! They are living longer than ever before.

For adults with developmental disabilities, the longevity revolution provides the opportunity for a full and meaningful life course equivalent to their peers and their siblings. For elderly parents this can, however, be a surprise. Many elderly parents of children with developmental disabilities were told early on, and have lived their lives under the assumption that, they would outlive their child with a disability. As a consequence, far too few parents of a child aging with a disability have engaged in "futures planning." Without planning, the death or frailty of an elder parent can lead to a less-than-smooth transition for an adult child with dependencies. Emergency admissions to nursing homes and group homes are not only expensive, they put an extreme burden on an adult with a disability who has been living comfortably, securely, and even independently.

A recent study of aging families in Indiana provides some insights, lessons and "take aways" in seven areas for families trying to remain strong over the long haul (Stafford & Pappas, 2009). Below are each of the areas, common types of responses from aging families, and what might be learned from their experiences:

It's true, aging ain't for sissies. Keeping the family strong, however small it may be, can be a challenge over many decades. Sticking with it is hard, but brings its own share of rewards. Strong family ties, even in small families, play a critical role. But extending ties, especially in small families, is an important part of the formula for success in the face of overwhelming stress. As one family member said, "All of the sudden some things just aren't as important anymore. I don't need to be quite so controlling. You've got to trust. In the long run, [he has his] brother and they have always been very close. [Jane and Joe, community members] have demonstrated they like [my son] -- they consider him in their family."


Stafford, P. & Pappas, V. (2009). Family supports: Issues and ideas -- Final report to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (unpublished). Bloomington: Indiana Institute on Disability and Community.  

Philip B. Stafford is Director of the Center on Aging and Community, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University, Bloomington. He may be reached at 812/855-6508 or for further information about the Indiana study of aging families.


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Heller, T., Stafford, P., Davis, L.A., Sedlezky, L., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Winter 2010). Impact: Feature Issue on Aging and People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 23(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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