Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Ideology, Context, and Obligations to Assist Older Persons

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Ideology, Context, and Obligations to Assist Older Persons

Article excerpt

Are older adults responsible for meeting their own needs, is it their children's obligation to care for them, or is there a collective responsibility to see that older adults have their needs met? The purpose of this study was to examine the normative obligations of individuals, family members, and the government to provide for the needs of older adults. The authors examined how ideological beliefs and contextual circumstances are related to beliefs about obligations to older persons. Data were collected from phone interviews of a sample of 270 adults who were over 40 years old. The results indicate that ideological beliefs were better predictors of normative obligations than were contextual variables. Future research should reflect the complex relationships among ideological beliefs, contextual circumstances, and normative obligation beliefs.

Key Words: collectivism, familism, filial obligations, individualism, intergenerational relationships, public policy.

Who is responsible for helping dependent older adults? This is an increasingly important question for policymakers, communities, families, and individuals in aging societies such as those in North America and Europe (Angel & Angel, 1997). In the United States, the responsibility for older adults historically has fallen mostly on family members, particularly women (i.e., wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law; Hooyman, 1992). However, changing demographics and lifestyle changes have made this "solution" to meeting the needs of dependent older persons less acceptable and less workable for many.

For example, the proportion of older persons in the United States is expected to nearly double to 20%Io of the population by 2030 (Administration on Aging, 1996). Longer life spans and low birth rates in recent decades mean that there will be relatively fewer working-age adults to assist the increasingly larger numbers of older persons that may need assistance (Angel & Angel, 1997). Larger proportions of women in the workforce mean that there are fewer potential caregivers at home or readily available to assist older family members (Piercy, 1998). Moreover, divorces and remarriages along the life course raise questions regarding kinship and obligations to old and new family members (Ganong & Coleman, 1999).

These changes in the family's formation and mode of functioning have been accompanied by efforts by policymakers to reduce public assistance for older persons (Walker, 1993). These public cost containment measures appear to be at odds with shifts in individual behaviors and family relationships. Public support of any policy change is related to attitudes about the social issues affected by the policy (Page & Shapiro, 1983; Zimmerman, 1992). What are the public's attitudes about responsibility to help older adults? Are such responsibilities individual, filial, or governmental obligations? Debates about public versus private responsibility are not new, but an increased interest in responsibility issues has renewed the relevance of this topic (Moran, 1996).

Because policies that reduce public assistance to older persons are often based on the questionable assumption that help from family members is available, appropriate, and nonproblematic (Hooyman & Gonyea, 1995; Montgomery, 1999), and because policies are often based on beliefs about responsibility to help (Cook & Barret, 1992), it is increasingly important to understand commonly held beliefs about obligations to help older persons. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine beliefs about the obligations of individuals, (step)children, and the government to assist older adults. Of particular interest were two potential influences on obligation beliefs: ideologies and contexts.


Three ideologies that may be related to obligations to assist older persons have been identified: individualism, familism, and collectivism (Hooyman & Gonyea, 1995; Pyke & Bengtson, 1996). …

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