Aug. 30-Sept. 12, 2002
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Children care for elderly parents
Steven Stern
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Steven Stern

By Charlotte Crystal

Adult siblings are learning to share in the care of their elderly parents.

While the eldest daughter still tends to shoulder the heaviest burden of caring for aging parents, more and more adult children are pitching in, says economics professor Steven Stern.

“Families often behave as if there is only one caregiver,” said Stern. “While there is usually one child who is the primary caregiver, other adult children are often willing to help out, within the limits of their capabilities. Often, the caregiver may not think to consult with her siblings and she misses out on opportunities to get help.”
But this has been changing.

Stern, and his co-author, Tenille Checkovitch, now a Yale-educated lawyer and formerly an undergraduate student at U.Va. majoring in economics, studied the arrangements families make to care for aging parents in their article, “Shared Care-giving Responsibility of Adult Siblings with Elderly Parents,” published in the Journal of Human Resources, Vol. 37, No. 3, which appeared on June 21.

The researchers found that:

• Women provide more care than men.

• Race has little impact on a child’s decision to care for parents, after taking into account other family characteristics.

• Children living farther away from their parents provide less care.

• Children provide more care for parents who need help with the tasks of daily living, such as dressing, eating and getting around.

• The more children in the family, the less care each child provides, although total care increases.

Families seem to fall into two different groups, Stern says. In one, the children make their caregiving decisions independently; in the other, they work as a team. “It has something to do with family dynamics,” Stern says.

Stern and his colleague took issue with previous research that suggested that siblings compete with each other for future bequests by helping their parents.
Stern’s results did not substantiate that argument, showing instead that sibling rivalry didn’t lead to more help from all the children. Instead, more help from one child tended to result in less help from the others.

Above all, the authors found that families often have more flexibility in caring for aging parents than they may realize and most or all the children – no matter their gender, income levels or the distance they live from their parents – should be involved in making decisions.

“Decisions don’t happen in a vacuum,” Stern said. “Children take into account the care-giving decisions of their siblings when making their own decisions.”

“What this means is that health care providers should include all the adult children, as much as possible, in caregiving decisions,” Stern said. “And public policymakers should realize that programs of long-term care for the elderly will affect the adult children in these families, as well as the elderly parents themselves.”

The challenge is growing. Improved nutrition and medical care are lengthening life spans, but as people age, their physical and mental impairments increase, leading to an expanding need for long-term care.

By 2030, there will be an estimated 70 million people over 65 in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. And while only 7 percent of America’s oldest population — 85 and above — lived in institutions in 1940, 25 percent do now, research shows.

“Needs are complex, but solutions are easier to come by when children talk to one another and share the care,” Stern said.


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