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Elder Care Puts Strain on Adult Parent-Child Relationship

26 July 2010 Wiley

Relationships between elder and younger members of a family can be strained and positive and negative in nature, even when affection is shared. A new study from the Journal of Marriage and Family finds that long-term caretaking duties puts further strain on adult parent-child relationships.

Authors of the first international comparative study of its kind, analyzed levels of affection and conflict among more than 2,600 parents and children in six developed nations: England, Germany, Israel, Norway, Spain and the U.S. They found that certain nations have developed prevalent, acceptable ways of behaving towards their elders, but that long-term interdependence and heavy care-taking responsibility introduces a major challenge to the relationship.

The authors identified key conditions that influence and inform levels of ambivalence, including affection, conflict, economic development, education, gender, number of siblings, residence situation, marital status, and cultural values. Lead author Dr. Merril Silverstein explains, “Caretaking situations due to a lack of welfare pose particular challenges to parent-child relationships. Citizens of nations with a more evolved welfare system tend to experience less conflict when faced with illness and long-term medical care situations. However, a healthy sense of interdependence can also encourage affection. We have found that apathy can be much more detrimental than conflict to close, personal, familial relationships. In general, older parents are more likely to report on the positive and affectionate qualities of the relationship than the child.”

British participants displayed notable traits of amicability, and avoidance of conflict, with an emphasis on cordialness. Germany and Spain showed a sense of detachment towards their elders and highly valued honesty. The United States demonstrated disharmonious characteristics; children expressed more independent and individualistic thinking than their European counterparts. Israel revealed mixed emotions towards senior members of their community, which the authors hypothesize is caused by paradoxical familial, social, and political elements at work within their socio-political environment.

Dr. Silverstein concludes, “Our study provides support for arguing the universality of the dynamics in the intergenerational family relationship in developed Western nations, and the importance of considering the larger social, political, and cultural context in evaluating these relationships.”

Data for this study came from two sources, both of which focused on participants based in urban communities: the five-nation, European Commission funded study known as Old Age and Autonomy: The Role of Service Systems and Intergenerational Family Solidarity (OASIS), and the Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG), concentrated in Southern California. Both data sets featured levels of closeness, amicability, communication styles, conflict, critical behavior, and frequency of arguments. The results were measured by degree of amicability, detachment, disharmony, and ambivalence.

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