Homeward Bound

Professor Naomi Cahn's New Book on Family Structure and Elder Care

Homeward Bound
April 17, 2017

In their new book, Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Elder Care and Loss, Amy Ziettlow and GW Law Professor Naomi Cahn present insights into how divorce, single-parenthood, and remarriage have changed the face of end-of-life care in the 21st Century, and how social and professional support can adapt to the needs of today's families.

About the Book

A new study from scholars, Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, shows that as family structure becomes more complex, so too does elder care, and existing institutions are not prepared to handle these realities. The study is reported in a book just published by Oxford University Press titled Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Elder Care, and Loss.

As 79 million American Baby Boomers approach old age, their diverse family structures mean the burden of care will fall on a different cast of family members than in the past. Today, 40 percent of Americans currently count step-relatives as a member of their family, and the divorce rate for adults ages 50 and older has roughly doubled in the past 25 years.

Single parent and remarried parent-led families are far more complicated and need increased formal support from religious, medical, legal, and public policy professionals.

Ziettlow, a Lutheran minister, and Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University, reveal how current approaches to elder care are based on an outdated caregiving model. That model presumes life-long connection between parents and children, with the existence of strong unifying norms and shared beliefs among family members, providing a valuable safety net for caregiving in late life.

Ziettlow and Cahn interviewed subjects whose mother, father, stepparent, or ex-stepparent had died. The survivors' stories illustrate the profound ways that the caregiving, mourning, and inheritance process has changed in ways not adequately reflected in current formal legal, medical, and religious tools.

The authors propose solutions that center on awareness and preparation: providing more support for individual planning for incapacity and death and, still more importantly, creating legal, political, and social planning for the "graying of America" at a time of increasingly complex familial ties.

Contact study authors:

Amy Ziettlow, [email protected] 

Naomi Cahn, [email protected]


Visit the book's Amazon page


Key Findings

  • Family structure shapes the quality of the elder care provided by, and grieving experience of, grown children. 
  • Formal planning helps facilitate a positive experience for offspring when their aging parents need care or die. 
  • Nudges related to end-of-life planning are needed when people obtain marriage licenses or divorce decrees.
  • Encourage hospice and palliative care usage. Most advanced planning in the research happened once a family was already enrolled in hospice. 
  • Accept the new normal in families and use formal tools to help compensate for their differing needs.