Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Attitudes regarding Obligations to Assist an Older Parent or Stepparent Following Later-Life Remarriage

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Attitudes regarding Obligations to Assist an Older Parent or Stepparent Following Later-Life Remarriage

Article excerpt

This study examines attitudes about obligations to assist an older parent or stepparent following later-life remarriage. The sample consisted of 189 men and 320 women who responded to vignettes portraying a later-life remarriage in which a family member needed assistance. Obligations were perceived to be greater to parents than to stepparents. Relationship closeness was an important consideration when making judgments about obligations to stepparents but not to parents. Men and women were equally obligated to their elders, and obligations to help stepmothers differed from obligations to help stepfathers and biological parents. We concluded that there is consensus that members of the younger generation have obligations to their elders, but there is not consensus about what tasks they should perform. The task receiving the least support was physical caregiving.

Key Words: intergrational obligations, steppparents.

This study examines attitudes about obligations to assist an older parent or stepparent following later-life remarriage. We defined intergenerational obligations in this study as perceived responsibilities to help family members. Perceived obligations between family members are important to understand because they serve as guidelines for individuals' behaviors and beliefs (Finch, 1987). What people do in families and how they make decisions about what to do are based partly on the cultural beliefs about what should be done. Although there is a large body of literature about intergenerational caregiving and exchange of support (e.g., Barer & Johnson, 1990; Bulcroft & Bulcroft, 1991; Lee, Dwyer, & Coward, 1993), relatively little attention has been paid to beliefs about obligations to provide support to older family members (Coleman, Ganong, & Cable, 1997).

ATTITUDES ABOUT INTERGENERATIONAL OBLIGATIONS

Recent demographic trends have increased the importance of understanding attitudes about intergenerational family obligations. For example, there are more older family members and fewer younger ones than in the past due to increased longevity and decreased reproduction (Bengston, 1996). As a consequence, there are fewer family members available to take care of and assist older kin. Another demographic trend is remarriage in later life. An estimated half million people over the age of 65 in the United States remarry each year (U.S. Census Bureau, 1995), and the number of older people who remarry is likely to increase. In addition to those who remarry after the death of a spouse, increasing numbers of middle-aged and older people are divorced and, therefore, eligible for remarriage.

The combined demographic effects of increased longevity and more later-life remarriages potentially place a burden on the middle generation, sometimes called the "sandwiched" generation (Richards, Bengtson, & Miller, 1989). It is conceivable that middle-aged adults could have four generations of family members to whom they feel certain obligations (e.g., their parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren). Additionally, they may feel obligations to in-laws, stepchildren, stepparents, and others whom they perceive to be kin as a result of remarriage. Members of the middle generation may be in a quandary about how to meet the demands of these various kin. Although there are norms (i.e., statements of obligatory actions or evaluative rules) regarding some kin relationships, cultural beliefs are more ambiguous about other relationships, such as stepkin (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1991; Johnson, 1988). Remarriage may force family members to decide if certain individuals are thought of as relatives or not.

Responsibilities of Adult Offspring to Their Parents

Researchers generally have found widespread agreement that adult children should provide assistance to their parents (Brody, Johnsen, Fulcomer, & Lang, 1983; Hamon & Blieszner, 1990; Hanson, Sauer, & Seelbach, 1983; Lee, Netzer, & Coward, 1994; Rolf & Klemmack, 1986; Seelbach, 1978; Seelbach & Sauer, 1977). …

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