Family Relationships in Adulthood: For the First Time, Parents and Children Can Expect to Share 30, 40, 50, or Even More Years of Their Lifetimes as Adults. as a Result, Family Relationships Are in New Territory. There Are Few Societal Guidelines for How Intergenerational Relationships Ought to Take Place

By Wilensky, Joe | Human Ecology, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Family Relationships in Adulthood: For the First Time, Parents and Children Can Expect to Share 30, 40, 50, or Even More Years of Their Lifetimes as Adults. as a Result, Family Relationships Are in New Territory. There Are Few Societal Guidelines for How Intergenerational Relationships Ought to Take Place


Wilensky, Joe, Human Ecology


The life course approach to human development considers not only growth throughout adulthood but also how life decisions can affect more than one generation within a family. This poses intriguing questions for those who study relationships within families. For those relationships--whether they're between parents and children or other relatives--change over the life course.

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Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development, looks at the relationships between parents and their grown children and how caring for an older relative can affect other relationships in people's lives. One of the founding members of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center (BLCC). Pillemer currently directs the Cornell Gerontology Research Institute, one of the institutes that make up the BLCC.

This focus on family and social relationships in middle age and beyond is particularly relevant now, as people continue to live longer and need care in old age. In addition, at least 80 percent of the care older people in our society receive is provided by family members. When a family member becomes a caregiver to a parent or other older relative, the stresses and consequences of that role affect other relationships in the caregiver's life as well. This is especially true when the person is providing care for a family member with Alzheimer's disease.

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In a study funded for the past decade by the National Institute on Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging, Pillemer has examined what happens to family members who care for Alzheimer patients and the effects of that role on their social relationships, social support, and psychological well-being. Family caregivers to people with Alzheimer's disease were chosen for the study, he explains, "because they are more susceptible to elevated stress, physical illness, and economic strain. We began the study with people who were beginning the process of taking on the care of a family member with Alzheimer's, and we looked at how things changed for them over time."

Pillemer has found that when people first take on the role of family caregiver, relationships with other people they know who have been through precisely the same experience are very beneficial. "Caregivers' psychological well-being remains at a higher level, despite the stress that they experience," he explains. One reason for this finding is greater empathy--people who themselves have been in the role of family caregiver in the past are more likely to provide understanding and support for others in their social network.

Pillemer recently followed these findings with a study that examined the effect of "social support enhancement intervention"--that is, purposely connecting caregivers of relatives diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease with others who had gone through similar experiences with the intent of making this particular life course transition easier. The intervention study was based on previous published studies, which had found that programs for Alzheimer's disease caregivers combining education, counseling, community services, and peer social support helped caregivers feel less isolated. Those studies, however, had not looked at peer social support alone to determine whether it would have positive outcomes for new caregivers.

What Pillemer found was that although it's important for new family caregivers to have contact with others who themselves have served a similar role, social support alone is not enough to improve their experience, especially if social support comes from someone who isn't in the caregiver's naturally occurring social network (such as existing friends, relatives, or acquaintances).

"It was not helpful to provide this artificially through the intervention program," he notes. Although the new caregivers had positive feelings about the intervention program itself, it did not ease for them this particular life course transition. …

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Family Relationships in Adulthood: For the First Time, Parents and Children Can Expect to Share 30, 40, 50, or Even More Years of Their Lifetimes as Adults. as a Result, Family Relationships Are in New Territory. There Are Few Societal Guidelines for How Intergenerational Relationships Ought to Take Place
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