Academic journal article Family Relations

The Differential Effects of Social Support on the Psychological Well-Being of Aging Mothers of Adults with Mental Illness or Mental Retardation

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Differential Effects of Social Support on the Psychological Well-Being of Aging Mothers of Adults with Mental Illness or Mental Retardation

Article excerpt

The Differential Effects of Social Support on the Psychological Well-Being of Aging Mothers of Adults With Mental Illness or Mental Retardation*

Jan S. Greenberg**, Marsha Mailick Seltzer, Marty Wyngaarden Krauss, and Hea-won Kim

Aging mothers of adults with mental illness and aging mothers of adults with mental retardation were contrasted with respect to their levels of stress, social support resources and the extent to which social support was predictive of their level of caregiving burden and depressive symptoms. Although mothers of adults with mental illness had smaller social support networks than mothers of adults with mental retardation, they were more likely to be members of support groups and have at least one friend also caring for a relative with disabilities. In addition, social support was a more prominent predictor of changes in burden and depressive symptoms in mothers of adults with mental illness, suggesting the importance of the social context for their psychological well-being.

Key Words: caregiver burden, caregiving, mental illness, mental retardation, social sup port, support groups.

In recent years, research attention has focused increasingly on the well-being of aging parents caring for an adult son or daughter with lifelong disabilities, including mental illness and mental retardation (Cook, Lefley, Pickett, & Cohler, 1994; Greenberg, Seltzer, & Greenley, 1993; Lefley, 1987; Seltzer, Greenberg, & Krauss, 1995; Seltzer & Krauss, 1989). In our earlier work, we found that aging mothers caring for an adult child with mental illness experience higher levels of caregiver burden and lower levels of psychological well-being than aging mothers caring for an adult child with mental retardation (Greenberg et al., 1993; Seltzer et al., 1995).

Research on the stress process (Ensel & Lin, 1991; Pearlin, 1989) has shown that coping and social support are two resources that influence the extent to which a stressful situation, such as lifelong caregiving responsibility, takes a toll on psychological well-being. Our past research has investigated the differential effects of coping by aging mothers of adults with mental illness as compared with aging mothers of adults with mental retardation. We found that although the two groups were similar in the coping strategies they employed in response to stressful situations, they differed in the effect of coping on their level of psychological well-being. When mothers of adults with mental retardation used problem focused coping strategies, they were able to reduce their risk of depression, but mothers of adults with mental illness experienced no such relief when they coped similarly (Seltzer et al., 1995).

We interpreted this difference in the effectiveness of problem-focused coping as being related to differences in the caregiving context between the two groups. Folkman (1984) posited that problem-focused strategies are most effective in coping with stressors that are within the individual's control. We argued that families of persons with mental illness experience less control over the stresses associated with caregiving because of the cyclical nature of mental illness and the associated behavioral problems that disrupt family and social routines (Francell, Conn, & Gray, 1988; Wasow, 1994). In contrast, most adults with mental retardation show stability in their functional level and cognitive abilities (Eyman & Widaman, 1987), and thus parental caregivers are more likely to experience the caregiving context as predictable and controllable (Wikler, 1986).

In this paper, we extend our past work by exploring the role of social support in mitigating caregiving stress among these two groups of parental caregivers of adults with disabilities. Parallel with our earlier work on coping, in this paper we examine two general research questions with respect to the extent to which social support is a resource that reduces the stress of long-term parental caregiving. …

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