Retiring from work? Then it might be time to think about raising a family. Some brave older adults are turning the idea of retirement on its head by choosing to adopt children — this when many of their peers are traveling, socializing, taking up intellectual or entrepreneurial pursuits, or just plain relaxing.
Some of these older parents are empty-nesters who apparently didn’t have their fill of child-rearing the first time around. Others are grandparents or older blood relatives of parents unable to care for their own children. Still others never had children, and finally have the time, desire and means to give it a go. In most cases, the children are older and have special needs; it is rare for an older adult to adopt an infant, according to national adoption groups.
No organization or federal agency keeps statistics on the ages of adoptive parents, so it is hard to estimate their numbers. But executives at several adoption-related organizations said they had definitely seen heightened interest among older adults. An informational Web site set up by Adoptive Families magazine has a special discussion forum for older adults with more than 500 members.
Chuck Johnson, president and chief executive of the National Council for Adoption, an advocacy group, said that over the last 20 years, age barriers formerly set by adoption groups had steadily fallen, so more and more older adults now qualified to become parents. With life spans lengthening and baby boomers remaining healthier longer, the time appears ripe for this kind of parenting.
As more singles and gay people, too, adopt children, it’s clear that the definition of what constitutes a suitable adoptive family is expanding. This reflects a recognition that “children do far better in families than in institutional or temporary care,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit research group, and author of “Adoption Nation.”
“These are competent, vetted people,” he added. Potential parents must go through a rigorous background check and participate in a home study process where a case worker observes the family before final approval occurs. The need for competent adoptive parents is great. In 2011, a little more than 50,000 children in the United States were adopted with the involvement of child-welfare public agencies, with around 104,000 waiting to be adopted, according to federal data. More than half of those waiting for adoption, were over the age of 6.
Because most older adults are approved to adopt older children, the age gap between parent and child need not be all that extreme. Older adults are adopting young adults too, Mr. Pertman said. “People can adopt 21-year-olds,” he said. “They want families, too. They want a place to go for Christmas.”
When adults adopt older children it’s important to remember that “most of these kids have special needs at some level,” Mr. Pertman said. “They were placed into foster care for some reason. You don’t suffer abuse or neglect without some repercussions.”
This can raise questions about whether an older adult is strong enough to handle some of the behavioral problems, including aggressiveness, that a special-needs child may exhibit. Older adoptive parents “must demonstrate that they have both the physical and mental acumen to meet the challenges of raising children in the same way that all families have their full circumstances considered,” Mr. Johnson said.
Some older adults decide to take the international route, even though foreign adoptions have declined as rules have become stricter. But when it comes to adopting abroad, “there’s an exception to every rule,” said Martha Osborne, founder of Rainbow Kids, an adoption advocacy group. Adopting a newborn is going to be nearly impossible, but the rules can be stretched for older children, she said. China, Bulgaria and Ukraine are among the more flexible countries, she added.
“There’s a lot more opportunity for older parents today than in the past,” said Chuck Johnson, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Council for Adoption, who started working in the field 28 years ago at an adoption agency that capped adoptive parents at age 40.
The change reflects more openness by adoption agencies in general, Johnson said, that also extends to single parents and same-sex couples. And it reflects a couple of reigning principles in adoption and child-welfare circles: First, every child – including foster children once deemed “unadoptable” – deserves a permanent, loving home. Second: Children whose parents can’t raise them should be raised instead by other biological relatives, if possible, including grandparents or great-aunts and -uncles.
The change also reflects lifestyle factors leading many families – adoptive or otherwise – to put off parenthood, said Gloria Hochman, communications director at the National Adoption Center, based in Philadelphia.
People are marrying later and women are staying in the work force longer before thinking about kids, she said. When they have trouble having children naturally, they turn to adoption.
But, as Johnson from the National Council for Adoption said, no one’s saying age doesn’t matter. In June, the council published an article about the causes of “broken adoptions” handled by Family Court in New York City. A six-month study found the vast majority resulted from the parent’s death (53 percent) or infirmity (22 percent). The article called some of the parents’ ages “startling”: A 66-year-old had adopted a 4-year-old; a 67-year-old had adopted an infant.
“Life expectancy is an issue,” Johnson said. “And you’re talking about children who have already suffered some loss already through the separation with their biological families. If they’re adopted by someone who might not survive the full childhood, it’s just another traumatic experience.”
Prospective parents’ overall health is always part of the discussion at Spokane Consultants in Family Living, adoption coordinator Maureen Reilly said. Birth mothers want adoptive parents likely to be around until their kids are adults. And “it’s tiring,” Reilly said. “It’s physically tiring to parent, to chase a 2-year-old around.”
In terms of age, the state of Washington only requires adoptive parents to be 18 or older. But private agencies like Reilly’s can set their own requirements. Spokane Consultants’ website says it requires parents to be 28 to 45. If they’re older, Reilly said, she’s willing to talk – though “I scratch my head, in all honesty … I don’t think I would start parenting in my 50s.”
“If they’ve been married a long time and really hadn’t thought about having children,” she said, “we really get down to why – what makes you really motivated and committed to parenting at this late stage in your life? We always look big-picture.”
Experienced parents looking to add to their family – maybe on second marriages – can be good for a toddler or older child who’s been bounced around among temporary caregivers, she said. They can provide the hours of rocking, holding and maybe bottle-feeding that a young child who missed out on those things’ needs, she said.
In fact, age and experience can give some adoptive parents a leg up, regardless of their children’s histories.
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