Baby boomers value caring for aging parents more than earlier generation

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Surprising findings from USC researchers show adult childrens’ sense of duty towards parents has grown stronger, not weaker over time
A new study from the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology found that the generation born in the 1950’s and 60’s are more committed to caring for their aging parents than their own parents were.

The findings, published in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family run contrary to popular notion that the institution of the family is in decline.

“Our study provides evidence to the resilience of families,” said Daphna Gans, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at the USC Davis School. “You expect the younger generation would be lower than the generation before. But our results suggest that families are still able to instill strong attitudes towards familial responsibilities even in light of changing family dynamics and forms.”

The research is one of a set of studies looking at attitudes and behaviors toward caring for aging parents using the USC Longitudinal Study of Generations, which followed individuals from 333 families over two generations. For this study Gans and co-author Merril Silverstein, professor of gerontology and sociology at USC, examined expected behaviors of adult children towards their aging parents over the 15-year period from 1985 through 2000.

Among their findings, an adult child’s desire to care for an aging parent peaks at the age of 51 when individuals are most likely to be called upon to provide parental support and women consistently express stronger familial obligations towards their parents than men.

The study also showed that the oldest respondents, presumably those most in need of care, valued it the least. The researchers say this illustrates that as parents get closer to death, they become more altruistic toward their children — that is, they make fewer demands of them in spite of their growing needs and increasing dependence.

“Very old adults give priority to their adult children and grandchildren and want to see them thrive, even if it means getting less care then they may actually need,” said Silverstein.

Both generations surveyed show a slight dip in attitudes towards parental caregiving starting in the 1980’s. However throughout the 15 years studied, the younger generation responded more favorably to providing care than the older generation ever did.

The pair’s earlier findings, along with Frances Yang of Harvard Medical School, showed that daughters were most likely to give support and mothers were most likely to get it. In fact, a mother in good health is more likely to receive support from children than a father in poor health. (Journal of Family Issues, August 2006)

Analyses for the current study were performed using four waves of data from the USC Longitudinal Study of Generations. Estimations were made using 4,527 observations from 1,627 individuals nested within 333 families. Findings were discussed in terms of the flexibility of responsibility levels for older generations over the entire lifespan.

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