Homeward Bound: Filial Piety in the 21st Century

In the fall of 2010, it was hard to open a newspaper without confronting this notable fact: the first Baby Boomers are now becoming Medicare eligible. The generation born between 1946 and 1964 – making up approximately 29 percent of the U.S. population, coming of age in an era of unprecedented prosperity, famously skeptical of institutions including marriage and religion, stereotyped as youth-obsessed individuals focused on self-fulfillment – is now poised to become America’s next generation of elders.

What will be the experience of those born to the Boomers as they confront the aging and dying of their parents and parent figures? Given the Baby Boom generation’s famous penchant for rewriting the rules, especially when it comes to family and religion, what caregiving and grieving challenges might their survivors confront? How might family trends that have emerged over recent decades, including increased rates of divorce, remarriage, single parenting, and elders living alone, shape the stories of grown children as their divorced or remarried Baby Boom-era parents age and die?

If we can investigate, now, how aging intersects with increased family fragmentation, and how these trends impact the deceased’s survivors, the church, and society, we will be far better prepared when, over the next two decades, what some are calling the “silver tsunami” breaks fully upon our shores.

Right now, the literature to which we might turn – that on death and dying – has a large and glaring gap. This literature largely assumes an intact family experience – that is, an experience in which persons grow up with and raise their own children in families with a married mother and father – and that they experience the aging, death, and dying of family members within those settings. There is no resource of which we are aware that systematically addresses the variety of family structures seen today and how persons might differently experience the dying and death of loved ones and family members in those settings.

Homeward Bound: Filial Piety in the 21st Century is a major project of investigation, publication, and dissemination on the topic of aging, death, and dying in an era of increased family fragmentation. In particular, we plan to focus on the point of view of the generations who came of age amidst the precipitous rise in divorce rates that began in the late 1960s, followed by more recent and dramatic increases in unwed childbearing, as they now confront the aging and loss of their parents and parent-figures. Parents and parent figures might include divorced or unmarried mothers and fathers, stepparents, parents’ current or former live-in partners, ex-stepparents, and others.

Homeward Bound is interested in two dimensions experienced by the young and mid-life adults who came of age amid widespread divorce and unwed childbearing: a) their caregiving challenges as their parents and parent figures age, and b) their grieving as they cope with the aging and dying of their parents.

Through our investigation, we seek to answer questions including:

  • How do these generations care for aging parents who may live far away from one another, and who may not have a spouse to help them?
  • How do the depleted household finances that often follow divorce impact each parent’s needs and perhaps burden their grown children?
  • Is there an obligation to care for aging stepparents?
  • Is there an obligation to care for parents who may have abandoned a child decades ago only to reappear when they, the aging parent, needs help?
  • How do grown children grieve the death of family members they may have already lost once through divorce?
  • How do they cope with and grieve the loss of beloved stepparents who others may not recognize are important to them?
  • If one’s parents have been divorced for decades, how does it feel to grieve the death of a parent when the other parent does not necessarily share in that loss?
  • Is grief complicated by family structure? Has family fragmentation made grief even lonelier?
  • How do full, half-, or step-siblings hold together or come into conflict in the midst of this caregiving and loss? Do some experience marginalization within the family that remains after a parent or stepparent dies? Were any new bonds forged? What differences might we see among siblings that stem from their different relationships with the one who died?
  • Are today’s young and mid-life adults are turning to clergy and congregations when losses occur in their families? What resources are they using for caregiving and grief support (books, blogs, support groups, Facebook, others)? Do they turn to the church?
  • Does the church’s response to children and young people around their parents’ divorce influence whether and how these persons turn to the church later when their parents are dying?
  • For some families, does death serve as a catalyst to help mend fragmented ties?
  • How can the church walk with these generations of grown children and their aging parents as their divorced or single parents face illness, aging, and death?
  • What role do hospital chaplains, pastors, and church elders play in the lives of caregivers? How does this generation experience traditional forms of pastoral care: the pastoral visit, pastoral calling in the hospital, prayer, and sacraments? As grief is ritualized through a funeral, how do music, scripture, preaching, and fellowship shape this generation’s experience of public mourning?
  • How is the church uniquely equipped to lead the way for a culture grappling with end of life issues in a changed family landscape?

Project outcomes to date include:

  • Homeward Bound, authored by Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, forthcoming 2016, Oxford University Press;
  • "Religion, Family, and End of Life Decision-Making," in Divorcing Marriage from the State: The Uneasy Relationship between Religion and Family Law in Defining Marriage, Parenthood, Life, and Death edited by Robin Fretwell Wilson, forthcoming 2016, Cambridge University Press;
  • "Digital Planning," Probate and Property, May 1, 2014 [which received the American Bar Association's 2014 Excellence in Writing Award];
  • "Making Things Fair: An Empirical Study of How People Approach the Wealth Transmission System," Naomi Cahn and Amy Ziettlow, Elder Law Journal vol. 22 no. 325, 2015 [Cited as one of the best works of recent scholarship relating to Trusts and Estates by Alexander Boni-Saenz in Jotwell;]
  • "The Honor Commandment: Law, Religion and the Challenge of Elder Care," Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, The Journal of Law and Religion, Volume 30, Issue 02, June 2015;
  • A symposium volume of the Journal of Law and Religion co-edited by Naomi Cahn and Amy Ziettlow, and featuring an interfaith, interdisciplinary group of scholars addressing the lived expressions of the honor commandment within their field of study, forthcoming 2016. [Publication to coincide with a conference featuring Cahn and Ziettlow as keynote speakers.]
  • "Religion and End of Life Decision-Making," Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, University of Illinois Law Journal, forthcoming, June 2016.
  • Over 35 articles and op-eds in mainstream and religious media;
  • Workshops for theological educators and church leaders around the country and presentations at church, academic, and professional conferences, including:

    • Nursing class presentation, Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, Baton Rouge, LA (spring 2012);
    • Presentation to staff, Hospice of Baton Rouge (spring 2012);
    • Presentation on "The Honor Commandment: Law, Religion and the Challenge of Elder Care," Feminism, Religion, and Law Conference, St. Thomas University, Minneapolis, MN (March 2014);
    • Presentation on "The Honor Commandment: Law, Religion and the Challenge of Elder Care," Feminism, Law, and Religion panel, George Washington University (March 26, 2014);
    • Presentation, Economics of Care Panel, Aging and Law Society Annual Meeting (May 30, 2014);
    • Two workshops on social media, caregiving, family structure, and loss for clergy and laypeople, Synod Assembly of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (June 6, 2014);
    • Workshop on funeral planning and the single or remarried family for clergy and church musicians, Annual Convention of the Association of Disciples Musicians (July 18, 2014);
    • Moderator and Keynote Speaker, Clergy Conference on the Honor Commandment, First Methodist Church, Baton Rouge, LA (October 21, 2014);
    • Guest Lecturer, Louisiana State University, Performing Narrative Class (October 22, 2014);
    • Guest Lecturer, Luther Seminary, Faith and Family Systems class, (January 13, 2015); and
    • Presentation, "Law, Religion and the Family Unit After Hobby Lobby: A Tribute to Professor Harry Krause," 2015 Law Review Symposium, University of Illinois College of Law (September 10 & 11, 2015).

For more information, or to schedule a presentation, please contact us.


Project outcomes to date include:

Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Elder Care, and Loss

Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Elder Care, and Loss
by Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, (Oxford University Press: April 2017)

In the News

"Homeward Bound" Addresses the End of Life
Donnette Beckett, Herald & Review, 4/3/2017

Ziettlow Sees Work Get Published
Thomas Schreiber, Le Mars (IL) Daily Sentinel, 3/28/2017

Starting with the Obituaries
Sarah Waldeck, Concurring Opinions Blog, 9/28/2015

The Honor Commandment: Law, Religion and the Challenge of Elder Care
Naomi Cahn and Amy Ziettlow, Amy Ziettlow and Naomi Cahn, Journal of Law and Religion, vol 30, no. 2, June 2015, 6/1/2015

Is Divorce the Best Option for Older Americans?
Amy Ziettlow, Huffington Post, 3/16/2015


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