Posted September 18, 2007

Children of divorce less likely to care for elderly parents

For better or worse, baby boomers approach retirement
with more complex marital histories than previous generations.
Temple University researcher Adam Davey, Ph.D. has found
the impact of these events — divorces, widowhood,
and remarriage — can predict the degree to which
an adult child will care for an aging parent.

A divorce may have happened more than 30 years ago,
but the changes it caused can have a long-lasting effect
for the child into adulthood, Davey said. The findings
appear in the September issue of Advances in Life
Course Research

More specifically, divorce predicted an adult child
would be less involved with day-to-day assistance later
in life for an aging parent. These activities include
the child helping the parent with chores in the home.

“It’s not the divorce itself that affects
the quality of the parent-child relationship, but it’s
what happens afterward such as geographical separation,” said
Davey, a gerontologist who studies trends in the baby
boomer generation and other aging issues.

Davey analyzed data, collected between 1987 and 1994,
from 2,087 parents aged 50 and older who reported on
their 7,019 adult children in the National Survey of
Family and Households.

“Marital transitions affect families in a number
of ways,” Davey said. “They can interrupt
the relationship of support between a parent and child,
and the evidence suggests that the continuity of support
by parents and to parents matters.”

The study also found marital disruptions earlier in
a child’s life can be less detrimental to the relationship
than those that occurred in adulthood. This also means
that children in the same family can be affected differently
by the same event, Davey said.

The results suggest that both the type of transition
and when in a child’s life it occurs are important.  A
father’s remarriage early in a child’s life
makes it more likely that his children will provide help
in later life, but the same transition when the child
is an adult reduces the chances of that child helping
the father. 

There is also evidence that the more a child’s
life was spent with a divorced mother, the higher the
chances that the child will provide assistance when the
mother is older, Davey said.

One surprising finding was that both mothers and fathers
are only half as likely to get support from a non-biological
child.  This has important implications for those
who reach old age anticipating help from stepchildren. 

“Society does not yet have a clear set of expectations
for stepchildren’s responsibility,” Davey

Despite the findings, this does not mean these potential
effects damage the parent-child relationship as a whole,
Davey said.

While marital transitions don’t seem to cause
irreparable damage to the support that children provide
to parents in later life, they do disrupt the needs and
resources of both generations.  Each child in the
family can experience the same event differently in ways
that can still be seen when the parents reach old age,
he said.

“Given how common marital transitions have become,
and how complex families have become as a result, it’s
surprising that the effects aren’t even more pronounced.” Davey

— Written by Anna Nguyen

For Temple Health Sciences PR