Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Caring More or Less: Individualistic and Collectivist Systems of Family Eldercare

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Caring More or Less: Individualistic and Collectivist Systems of Family Eldercare

Article excerpt

While previous research has emphasized the commonalities among family caregivers, this study identifies individualistic and collectivist systems of family eldercare and explores their dimensions. We analyzed qualitative interviews with 67 members of 20 three-generation families, categorizing them on an individualistic-collectivist dimension. These categories were assigned on the basis of 3 sets of traits among which there was a high level of congruency: family ethics, levels of contact and interdependence, and caregiving practices and meanings. The data suggest that while individualist families minimize their caregiving and rely on formal supports, collectivists use caregiving to construct family ties, sometimes prompting overcare. We discuss factors that contribute to these caregiving strategies and make predictions concerning future responses to the transfer of eldercare from social services to families.

Key Words: aging family, collectivism, eldercare, family systems, individualism, intergenerational relations.

Public and scholarly concern that the family has eroded as an institution and no longer takes care of its members has been a dominant feature of family discourse in recent years (Popenoe, 1993; Skolnick, 1991). However, families, not nursing facilities, provide the majority of eldercare in this country (Abel, 1991; Brody & Schoonover, 1986; Stoller, 1983). With longer life spans, increases in the average number of years that the elderly live with chronic illnesses and disabilities, and fewer children to share caregiving (Bengtson, 1993; Coward, Horne, & Dwyer, 1992; Treas, 1977), family members today provide more eldercare for longer periods than ever before in U.S. history (Brody, 1985). Indeed, today's women can expect to spend more years caring for elderly parents than they do rearing children (Watkins, Menken, & Bongaarts, 1987).

Such trends are likely to continue. Current cost containment measures that transfer caregiving work from public social services to unpaid family members indicate families will be absorbing even greater eldercare demands (Gerstel & Gallagher, 1994; Glazer, 1993). Yet we know too little about the organizing principles and values that shape families' responses-or nonresponses-to eldercare needs, nor do we know much about the effect of such care transfers. Our research addresses these concerns by examining variations in family caregiving systems among multigenerational families.

The increasing awareness of family eldercare has resulted in a large but somewhat narrow body of research on family caregiving. Variations in family caregiving strategies have been largely unexamined. The literature has focused on families that do provide home care to their elderly members, rather than those that do not. It has focused more specifically on the primary caregiver, examining the kinds of care she or he provides, the motives for caregiving, and the costs of caring. Because women provide most of the eldercare (Dwyer & Coward, 1992a; Lawton, Silverstein, & Bengtson, 1994), much of the caregiving research has restricted sampling to women caregivers (see Abel, 1991; Aronson, 1992; Brody, 1990; Brody & Schoonover, 1986; Brody, Kleban, Johnsen, Hoffman, & Schoonover, 1987; Fischer, 1986; Matthews & Rosner, 1988; Walker & Pratt, 1991). The intent of such research has been to describe commonalities in the caregiving process. The result is a homogenous portrait of caregiving provided by highly committed female individuals who are motivated by attachment and norms of filial obligation. Caregiving in the context of the larger family system, permitting examination of the secondary caregivers as well as male participants, has been rarely studied (Dwyer & Coward, 1992b).

Recent research has begun to examine variations in family caregiving strategies and the subjective meanings associated with eldercare (Albert, 1990; Gubrium, 1991, for a review, see p. …

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