The death of a parent can be devastating. The loss of a second parent can be even more unsettling. For some, it means the loss of the home they grew up in. It could also mean the loss of rituals that have lasted a lifetime. It could spell the end of habits and practices that have lasted for decades (as, for example, for grown children who always called their mom on Sunday). Even the most basic ways of talking need to change – references to your parents are now in the past tense, not present.
For the first time, a nationally representative survey in the U.S. (the Survey of Income and Program Participation) collected data on the age at which participants’ parents had died. The data that were analyzed were from 2014. The analyses assume one mother and one father and included only biological parents. Of course, in contemporary American society, there are many other possibilities.
Here are some of their key findings.
- The scariest time, for those dreading the loss of a parent, starts in the mid-forties. Among people between the ages of 35 and 44, only one-third of them (34%) have experienced the death of one or both parents. For people between 45 and 54, though, closer to two-thirds have (63%).
- Among people who have reached the age of 64, a very high percentage – 88% — have lost one or both parents.
- In the same age group (55-64), more than half (54%) have lost both parents.
- Even at a very young age, between 20 and 24, nearly 10% have experienced the death of one or both parents.
- Typically, people experience the death of their father before their mother. For example, among people between the ages of 45 and 54, more than half have lost their father (52%) but only one-third (33%) have lost their mother.
- There are racial/ethnic differences in the age at which people experience the death of a parent. For example, among people between the ages of 25 and 34, 24% of blacks, 17% of Hispanics, and 15% of whites and Asians have lost at least one parent.
- We have long known about the dire implications of poverty for health, hunger, homelessness, and much more. The new data on parental mortality add another sad outcome. People living in poverty lose their parents at a younger age than everyone else. People with fewer financial resources, even if they are not impoverished, also experience the death of their parents at a younger age than those who are well-off.
The authors of a working paper about the findings, Zachary Scherer and Rose Kreider, offer this conclusion:
“Having a living parent or parents plays a key role in the life of a child. The benefits of parental transfers often persist throughout the life course, even after the ‘child’ has become an adult, with parents potentially offering financial, emotional, and practical support to their children…
“Ostensibly, individuals with lower income, lower educational attainment, and those from communities that experience lower life expectancy would benefit most from parental support. However, our findings indicate that those same groups are the ones that experience parental loss earlier in life, along with the psychological and material consequences that often accompany such an event.”