Older Parents and Adult Children

Unlike the situation of yesteryear, only a small percentage of older adults now live with their children. Still, they usually live close enough to call on them in medical emergencies or when other needs arise. Intergenerational contacts are fairly frequent, being motivated by mutually positive feelings for one another and a sense of duty (Harris & Associates, 1975). Most adult children have strong feelings of filial responsibility for their parents; that is, that they have an obligation to maintain relationships with their older parents and come to their aid when needed. To some extent, older parents feel the same way, that is, that they are responsible for and have a duty to take care of their adult children. However, most older parents do not believe that their children should feel as responsible for them as the children actually report feeling (Hamon & Blieszner, 1990). People of all ages like to feel independent and are generally more willing to give than to receive. This is particularly true of older adults, in whom the reception of aid from others can arouse feelings of dependency, helplessness, uselessness, and of having reached the end of life.

For the most part, adult children have fairly frequent contacts with their parents. Daughters see their parents more often than sons, and older widows see their children more often than older married couples (Frank, Avery, & Laman, 1988). As might be expected, the geographical distance between the residences of adult parents and children affects the amount of interpersonal contact (Moss, Moss, & Moles, 1985), but in most cases the relationships are close. The influence between generations flows in both directions. Many older parents, albeit sometimes too quickly, attempt to influence their children in areas such as health, work, finances, and legal matters. On the other hand, adult children offer advice to their older parents on health, living arrangements and conditions, money, dress, and household management (Moss et al., 1985). Adult children may also, sometimes successfully, attempt to influence their parents' views on politics, religion, and gender roles (Bengt-son et al., 1990).

With respect to services performed, there is frequent interchange between older adults and their children on housekeeping, baby-sitting, meal preparation, transportation, and other chores. For example, many adult children help their parents with shopping, transporting them to doctors' offices, and in dealing with governmental and social agencies. Each generation may provide financial assistance to the other, but most often it is the older parents who give money to their children rather than vice versa. The kinds of services performed across generations also vary with socioeconomic status. The services performed for their parents by working- and lower-class adult children are more likely to involve hands-on activities such as home maintenance, whereas middle-class sons and daughters tend to assist their parents by providing emotional support and money (Chappell, 1990). Sons are more likely than daughters to give monetary assistance to their parents, but in most instances, affluent parents are on the giving rather than the receiving end of financial aid. Because the relationship between mother and daughter is usually closer than that between father and daughter, mother and son, or father and son, most intergenerational assistance takes place between mothers and daughters. Mothers and daughters provide a great deal of emotional support and hands-on care to each other.

Although there are exceptions, most families do their best to provide adequate care for their older members. Consequently, efforts by federal and state governments to enact and enforce filial responsibility laws requiring families to provide more financial support for elders are probably unnecessary and even counterproductive.

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