Adopting the Caregiver Role: A Family Legacy

By Piercy, Kathleen W.; Chapman, Jeffery G. | Family Relations, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Adopting the Caregiver Role: A Family Legacy

Piercy, Kathleen W., Chapman, Jeffery G., Family Relations

Adopting the Caregiver Role: A Family Legacy*

A qualitative study was done to investigate how adult children become caregivers to older parents with functional impairments and what roles their own children adopt in their family's care arrangements. In-depth interviews with 43 members of IS families revealed 5 influences on children and grandchildren's adoption of caregiver roles: expectations, family rules, religious training, role modeling and role making. Further analysis of families with grandchild participants showed considerable variation both between and within families in how and what kinds of eldercare roles were adopted. These results can be used by family life educators interested in creating parent-care education programs.

Key Words: caregiving, elder care, family rules, intergenerational relations, role mod--


With projected increases in North America's population of older adults, it is likely that more assistance than ever before will be provided to frail or ill older persons. Despite persistent myths that families abandon their aged relatives to nursing home and other care facilities (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton, 1996), reviews of research findings show that family members provide the majority of assistance needed by their dependent elders (Abel, 1990; Dwyer, 1995). Furthermore, several studies have found that adult children express high levels of agreement with attitudes of obligation to parents (Finley, Roberts, & Banahan, 1988; Lawton, Silverstein, & Bengtson, 1994; Rossi & Rossi, 1990). Thus, many adult children are willing to provide assistance to their parents as their needs for such help become apparent.

Although families are willing to care for older members, it is less clear how their members adopt the caregiver role. Shanas (1980) observed that neither older adults nor their adult children had been socialized to cope well with issues related to increased longevity and declining functional ability. Need for socialization to the caregiver role is evidenced by the proliferation of selfhelp books for caregivers (Lustbader & Hooyman, 1994; Morris, 1996) and Internet sites that give information and advice to persons caring for aged parents (Elderpaths, index.phtml;,; Family Caregiver Alliance, Despite these efforts to better educate family caregivers, we know little about how adult children adopt caregiver roles. An understanding of how adults come to embrace the caregiver role may be useful in developing ways to encourage future generations to care for their parents and older family members. To that end, the purpose of the study reported here was to explore how families adopt caregiving responsibilities for their elderly parents or grandparents living at home. Inclusion of adult grandchildren in this study enabled us to examine the extent to which they also accept caregiving responsibilities for older generations of family and what influences their involvement with grandparent care. With few exceptions (Pyke & Bengtson, 1996), adult grandchildren rarely have been studied in investigations of eldercare.

This study is informed by social learning and symbolic interaction theories. Social learning theorists posit that people learn new expectations and behaviors by observing the behavior of others and the consequences of that behavior. They then perform that behavior with the expectation of similar consequences (Bandura, 1977). Although negative consequences of parent caresuch as stress, burden, and depression-are well documented, (Aneshensel, Pearlin, Mullan, Zarit, & Whitlatch, 1995; Schulz, Visintainer, & Williamson, 1990), caregivers have reported positive consequences from their experiences, such as closer relationships with the care recipient (Allen & Walker, 1992; Conger & Marshall, 1998; Horowitz & Shindelman, 1983; Walker, Shin, & Bird, 1990), personal growth (Farran, Keane-Hagerty, Salloway, Kupferer, & Wilken, 1991), and an opportunity to reciprocate care given to them as children (Piercy, 1996). …

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