Aging Parents

Throughout our life span, the family is one of the most stable and reliable relationships we experience. Aging parents in America are thriving within the context of their families. Despite the empirical support for this statement, negative stereotypes about older families persist. It is not uncommon to hear about the threats accruing to aging parents as a function of geographic mobility, family breakdown, and social isolation. Concomitantly, older adults may be characterized as “greedy geezers,” placing huge burdens on both the family and society.

Decades of empirical study, however, reveal a picture of families in which aging parents play a key role. Most of this research has been guided by the solidarity  model  proposed  by  Bengtson  and  Schrader  in 1982. This model examines intergenerational relations in terms of normative solidarity, affectional solidarity, consensual solidarity, associational solidarity, functional solidarity, and structural solidarity.

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Normative  solidarity  refers  to  perceptions  that one is experiencing usual or typical life events. Indeed, the phenomenon of aging parents is normative. Most older Americans are parents, with 75% to 80% having at least one living child. This, coupled with increased longevity, increase the likelihood of living in a four-or five-generation family. Moreover, this trend is expected to continue; by the year 2020, 60% of women age 50 and older are expected to have at least one living parent. Thus, one can simultaneously have aging parents and be an aging parent.

Affectional solidarity refers to shared feelings of esteem and affection. The parent-child bond is the strongest familial bond (outside of marriage) and continues to be important to both children and aging parents. However, there is some evidence that these relations may be more important to aging parents, giving rise to the “intergenerational stake” hypothesis. This states that relative to their children, aging parents report higher levels of affection and a stronger desire to maintain contact with other generations. This trend extends to the middle generation, who value their relationships with their own children more highly than they value their relationships with their parents.

Consensual solidarity refers to the degree to which generations agree about fundamental social, cultural, and political views. We know that attitudes and expectations are in flux, making it difficult to adequately gauge the effects of consensual solidarity. Some research suggests that this aspect of intergenerational solidarity is especially important for immigrants and first-generation families.

Associational solidarity is indexed by the frequency of contact between the generations. Associational solidarity is high, with 80% of older parents having some contact with an adult child at least once a week. Not surprisingly, there are gender differences in the frequency of such interactions, with aging mothers reporting higher levels of contact than aging fathers.

Functional solidarity, the exchange of goods and services, flows bidirectionally across contiguous generations. Aging parents may provide child care, financial assistance, and advice; adult children may provide help with household chores, home repairs, and personal care. In late life, parents tend to receive more than they give. When aging parents require assistance, it is family members who provide the bulk of that care.

Structural solidarity focuses on living arrangements. Throughout American history, and continuing today, separate but proximate households are the norm. Only about 20% of the noninstitutionalized elderly reside in households in which two or more generations are present. Gender, age, and race affect the likelihood of multigenerational coresidence. Women are more likely to coreside with nonspouse family members, both as a widowed mother and as an aging daughter or daughter-in-law. As one might expect, the percentage of older adults coresiding with a younger generation increases dramatically with advanced age, with nearly half of adults older than 90 years who live in the community sharing a residence with at least one younger generation. African Americans are more likely than Euro-Americans to live in multigenerational homes.

Aging Parents As Caregivers

Although most parents look forward to launching their sons and daughters into an independent adulthood, some adult children are not able to live independently. Parents of adults with chronic disabilities may experience extended parenting in which the roles they enacted during early childhood continue into that child’s adulthood. When sons and daughters experience such lifelong disabilities, it is often aging parents who provide assistance. Two types of chronic disabilities are associated with this extended parenting: developmental disabilities, including mental retardation; and chronic mental illness, such as schizophrenia. In addition, aging parents are often viewed as the “front-line” child care providers when the middle generation requires assistance raising their own offspring.

Providing continued parental assistance to an adult son or daughter with a chronic disability is associated with a host of satisfactions and burdens for aging parents, especially aging mothers. Mothers of adults with chronic mental illness report particularly high levels of caregiving burden, even when they do not reside with their son or daughter. Even in these situations, however, the parent-child relationship is characterized by high levels of affectional and functional solidarity. As in other aging families, the flow of assistance between aging parents and adult children with disabilities is often bidirectional. In fact, most older mothers of adults with serious mental illness receive at least some help from their adult offspring.

A second area in which aging parents provide substantial assistance to younger generations is that of child care. About 22% of adults ages 65 to 74 years  provide child care to family members. In many cases, the older adult resides with the young child. More than 1 in 10 U.S. grandparents raise a grandchild for at least 6 months, with most providing care for 3 years or more. Nearly 5 million U.S. children currently live with grandparents.

The custodial grand-parenting role occurs under difficult family crises related to the middle generation, including death, incarceration, divorce, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, abuse of the child, and abandonment. In a comparison of the effects of various caregiving constellations, custodial grandparents profile as more distressed by their caregiving demands than caregivers to older patients with chronic illnesses.

Sandwich Generation: Aging Parents As Care Recipients

The pattern of care shifts within a family such that aging parents begin to receive more assistance than they provide. Whereas 35% of adults ages 65 to 74 provide personal care to someone else, only 12% of those ages 85 and older provide such care. Mothers, old parents, parents in need of support, and parents without a partner receive relatively more support from their adult offspring. Reciprocity, however, continues to characterize relations with aging parents. Even when aging parents are receiving assistance from their adult children, older parents may continue to provide a range of support, including emotional and tangible support (e.g., child care, household tasks).

Middle-aged individuals are sometimes referred to as the “sandwich generation.” This term has two levels of meanings. Structurally, it refers to middle-generation cohorts sandwiched between older and younger cohorts in the population. Individually, it refers to people in middle adulthood who simultaneously have relations with their adult children, as they enter and adjust to adulthood, and their aging parents, as they deal with issues of later life. Members of this sandwich generation are presumed to face potential stresses from the combined and competing demands of their intergenerational roles as parents and children.

Despite the attention that this construct has drawn in the popular press, the notion of a sandwich generation may be misleading. First, many of the conflicts middle-aged adults report are due to competing roles in general, not competing generations. Second, conflicting obligations or “sandwiching” can be experienced by anyone who assumes the caregiving role.

Research in this area must be viewed in the larger context  of  generational  reciprocity  across  the  life span. It is only in later life, after age 85, that older adults begin to receive more support than they provide. However, even though relatively few middleaged adults are actively involved in assisting their children and parents, either individually or in combination, at any particular time, there may be substantial burdens for those who are.

In summary, aging parents continue to exert positive influence in society. Families maintain frequent and fulfilling contact across generations. The assistance that is provided within families flows in a bidirectional manner, with the balance shifting toward aging parents as recipients of care in very late life.


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