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Posted 06.07.05

Older Adults Less Likely to Care for Parents than 18-Year-Olds, MU Researcher Finds

Findings Could Affect Public Policy

COLUMBIA, MO -- After raising children, parents might expect some return for their own care as they age. However, University of Missouri-Columbia researchers found that while young and middle-aged adults today believe they should help and care for aging parents, adults over the age of 65 are less likely to think that aging adults should be helped by younger family members.

"We were surprised to find that older respondents to our study consistently thought that less help should be given and that there was a lower obligation to help," said Larry Ganong, professor of nursing. "This pattern was the same whether the help being offered was for a parent or a stepparent."

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Ganong and Marilyn Coleman, MU professor of human development and family studies, surveyed more than 3,300 adults over four years, asking them questions while describing scenarios where an older parent or stepparent needed help with either physical care, financial aid or other obligations. The researchers did find that both the amount of assistance and obligations to assist were greater for family members related through genetics than for those members who were "stepkin," or members related by marriage only. However, in all cases, the researchers found that age was a prevailing factor. Adult children ages 18 to 64 were more likely to help their parents than those children 65 years old and older.

"This attitude toward aging parents could have a major impact on public policy as the federal government and states review their public responsibility policies regarding the care of seniors," Ganong said. "Right now, 30 states have family responsibility laws. As America ages, states may consider more of these types of laws, but we need to determine the limits of these obligations. Divorce, and parent-child relationships after divorce, may give adult offspring fewer reasons to help aging parents, particularly when parents did not live with them after the divorce. Moreover, parental remarriage introduces more ambivalence and may further alter family bonds of loyalty, obligations and affection."

Other findings from the study indicated that the type of relationship with the parents only mattered for non-biological relationships. Those adult children with poor relationships with their parents often felt their parents deserved some aid. However, adult children who had poor relationships with their stepparents rarely noted an obligation to assist the stepparent. In addition, children did not feel a strong obligation to assist a stepparent if the stepparent had divorced or separated from the biological parent.

The National Institute of Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health, funded the study with a $660,000 grant.

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