The family as a social institution functions as the primary source of physical, social, emotional, and financial support for its members. Provision of various types of care flows back and forth between generations. For married couples, a spouse is the primary source of care. However, adult children care for parents or grandparents; aging parents provide assistance or care to developmentally disabled adult children; siblings help each other with housekeeping and transportation; and grandparents raise grandchildren.
Significant demographic and social changes have affected the size and structure of the family and thus the nature of family social care. Increased life expectancy and earlier childbearing in some generations have resulted in the growth of families spanning four or even five generations. For example, 10% of people over age 65 have a child who is also over 65 (U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, 1991). Thus a person may be both child and grandparent with care needs and resources based on both roles and life stages. For example, a 45-year-old grandmother may still turn to her 65-year-old mother for emotional or social support; however, as a grandparent, the same person is expected to be concerned with the welfare of her own children and grandchildren.
Another change in the structure of the family that impacts family caregiving is the existence of fewer age peers within a single generation (i.e., siblings and cousins) and more relationships across generational lines (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton, 1990). Consequently, there are fewer younger family members available to care for older members. In addition, as a result of divorce and remarriage, adult children may find themselves caring for their biological parents, current parents-in-law, and former parents-in-law to whom they are still emotionally attached. These middle-aged adults may also find their young adult children returning home due to divorce, economic need, or drug-abuse problems (E. M. Brody, 1981; Cantor, 1994). Thus this so-called sandwich generation is faced with competing responsibilities to both older and younger generations.
Moreover, cohabitation by both same-sex and non-same-sex partners has increased, and little is known about their ability or willingness to provide various types of assistance. The ability of cohabiting partners to provide care for each other is partly related to formal legal rights and duties that will be debated in the courts. The willingness of partners to provide care is based on informal norms of responsibility that must be individually negotiated and then widely acknowledged. However, both ability and willingness may be dependent on the extent to which cohabiting relationships are viewed as similar or equal to the traditional concept of family.
Was this article helpful?