Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Antecedents of Intergenerational Support: Families in Context and Families as Context

Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Antecedents of Intergenerational Support: Families in Context and Families as Context

Article excerpt

Routine assistance between older parents and their adult children has emerged as an important area of study in recent years (cf., Alien, Blieszner, & Roberto, 2000) as older and younger generations remain actively involved across their life spans (e.g., Field & Minkler, 1988; Rosenmayr & Kockeis, 1963; Shanas, 1979; Zarit & Eggebeen, 1995, 2002). Increased life expectancy and decreased family size have permitted parent-child relationships to last for a greater portion of adulthood than at any time in the past and have been suggested to increase the importance of these ties for parents and children alike (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton, 1990). Also relevant is evidence that people appear to turn first to kin for assistance in times of need (Penning, 1990), the prevalence of which is increasing with the aging population. As social networks contract due to loss of a spouse through widowhood or, increasingly, divorce, intergenerational relationships are more likely to be the first place that older adults turn for help. Also, mounting evidence demonstrates that patterns of intergenerational exchanges can have important psychological consequences for both parents and children. The circumstances under which this is the case are only beginning to be identified (Boerner & Reinhardt, 2003; Davey & Eggebeen, 1998; Davey & Norris, 1996; Liang, Krause, & Bennett, 2001; Ramos & Wilmoth, 2003).

Early work focused on the frequency of contact between parents and offspring, but most current approaches consider the content of, and satisfaction with, exchanges, including instrumental assistance, such as with household tasks or transportation, financial assistance, emotional support and advice, and sharing information. Despite growing agreement on the content of intergenerational exchanges, still no consensus exists on how to measure the amount of assistance exchanged, with researchers relying on various dichotomous indicators (e.g., exchangers versus nonexchangers) either assessed globally or based on a single kind of assistance, the number of types of assistance exchanged, the frequency of exchanges, or time spent on exchanges. This fact often complicates comparisons of findings from studies using different methods for measuring exchanges.


In this chapter, we outline an emerging perspective on intergenerational relationships that is useful for organizing the literature on the flow of assistance between generations and for charting a research agenda for the coming years. Gerontologists have long regarded individuals as being embedded within a latent matrix of supports (e.g., Riley, 1983). Unfortunately, most previous research on the characteristics of this matrix has potentially overlooked the most important characteristics and predictors of intergenerational support. We suggest that a shift from considering/omilies in context to one of studying/amz'fes as context will provide ample theoretical purchase on the antecedents of intergenerational support and point the way to innovations of measurement, design, and analysis of ties between generations.

Emerging evidence shows that it makes a difference whether one looks at intergenerational relationships from the perspective of the older parent or the adult child (Freedman, Wolf, Soldo, & Stephen, 1991). A family reflects a constellation of individual parent-child relationships, each potentially affected by the qualities and characteristics of the others. Thus, whether a study considers a single parent-child relationship, the child closest (geographically or emotionally) to the parent, or whether it aggregates data from multiple relationships is potentially important.

In addition, intergenerational relationships come with a long history of expectations and interactions; thus, intergenerational ties provide their own context in terms of continuity over time, making longitudinal data essential. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.