Parent, Child Relationship

Parent-Child Relationship

The two most primary family relationships are between husband and wife, and between parent and child. Most older adult, 84 percent, have living children and consider them to be key members of their social support system (Atchley & Barusch, 2004). Increases in longevity mean that parents are spending longer periods than ever before with their adult children, most of it spent after the children have moved out of home. Increasingly, parents, in particular mothers, can expect to have a relationship of 50, 60, even70 years or more with a “child”. In fact, about 10 percent of parents have adult children aged 65 or older (Atchley & Barusch). The length of time spent in relationship to one another has resulted in a number of complex and overlapping roles, including parent, grandparent, confidant, caregiver, co-resident, and so on. As the complexity and never of roles increase, so do the opportunities and challenges for providing intergenerational social support.

A common misperception today is that adult children have turned their backs on their aging parents, leaving them socially isolated and in need of care (Atchley & Barusch, 2004). The majority of research demonstrates otherwise. Generally speaking, adult children are very much involved in their parents’ lives, even if it is at a distance. While some parents may initially move away when they retire, as health problems surface or one parents gets seriously ill or dies, they tend to move back to be near one or more of their adult children. Likewise, adult children may move away to pursue careers or interests, but this does mean they have abandoned their parent. Studies indicate that distance is not a factor in the quality or closeness of the parent-child relationship (Uhlenberg & Cooney, 1990; Lin & Rogerson, 1995). Frequently of in-person visits caries with travel time, with those living closer dropping by more often but for shorter periods of time than those who visit from out of town. Estimates vary, but in one large-scale study, more than half of the adult children with both parents alive and living together lived within 30 miles of their parents (Rogerson, Weng, & Lin, 1998).

Social Support in Parent-Child Relationships

Social support occurs throughout the life cycle between parents and children. Contrary to the myth that older people are only recipients of support, research shows social support is by and large equal and reciprocal, following in both generational directions (Atchley & Barusch, 2004; Bengtson et al., 1990). The type of flow of social support provided varies to some degree by timing in the life course.

Much of the research on social support in families has traditional focused on the caregiver relationship between parent and adult child, unfairly weighting the conclusion that older adults are the primary recipients of care. Recent research, however, shows that healthy parents up until age 80 are often the primary givers of support across all categories – instrumental, emotional, informational, and financial (Bengtson et al., 1990; Hoyert, 1991). The pendulum usually swings after age 80, widowhood, serious illness, or chronic poor health, at which time adult children appear to give more support. Most parents and children believe that in the end, the support given is equal or greater to the support they have received (Atchely & Barusch, 2004).

The type of support that parents provide varies with age, need, and ability, as well by socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. In general, parents between the ages of 65 and 74 are likely to help their younger adult children with financial assistance, such as a down payment for a car or house, and household aid, such as babysitting and housework (Atchley & Barusch, 2004). Parents also provide significant emotional support, particularly in times of serious illness, death of a spouse or child, or divorce. In recent years, an increasing number of parents also help their young adult children, mostly 18 to 35 years of age, by providing housing. Called boomerang kids, the grown children of this phenomenon have been attributed to the poor economy, slow job market, high costs of housing, and increasing number of adult children getting divorced.

Adult children provide parents with care as well. In a national study with more than 7,000 participants, one-third of seniors 70 years and older with physical limitations received regular assistance from their children with activities of daily living (eating, bathing, dressing, etc.), although only 7 percent receive help most of the time (Lo Sasso & Johnson, 2002). The importance of this assistance is noteworthy: Those who received regular help with basic are from their children were 60 percent less likely to use nursing home care over the next two years than similar elders who did not receive family assistance (Lo Sasso and Johnson). In addition to direct personal care, adult children also provide a wide variety of other assistance – shopping, transportation, balancing the checkbook and paying the bills, house and yard work, and so forth. Proximity is a factor for many of the tasks that need to be done, but those who live at a distance also provide a substantial amount of care.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.