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Middle-aged children often provide money, caregiving time, and shared living space to help their disabled elderly parents

Adults in their 50s, members of the so-called "sandwich generation," often have elderly parents prone to frailty and disability. Indeed, nearly three out of four people in the age range of 50 to 54 have at least one living parent and one living child. One-fifth of middle-aged households include at least one elderly parent who cannot be left alone and needs help with activities of daily living (e.g., eating, dressing, using the toilet). These are mostly multigenerational households that also include children and even grandchildren. In 29 percent of these households, adult children provide caregiving time (hours of caregiving), give money for needed care and assistance, and/or share living space with their disabled elderly parents.

These are the findings of a recent study supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS08232) and based on the 1992 Health and Retirement Survey. The study included 1,298 households in which at least one adult was between ages 51 and 62 and lived with a spouse or domestic partner. The provision of caregiving time was increased when an elderly parent could not be left alone and he or she was very dependent on others for help with personal care. Financial assistance was more likely when parents were not married, and coresidence was more likely when parents had few or no other family members with whom they could live. Surprisingly, in 55 percent of all caregiving households, both spouses were caregivers; men were sole caregivers in 7 percent, and women were the only caregivers in 38 percent of these households.

The study was led by Rachel F. Boaz, Ph.D., of the City University of New York. Dr. Boaz and colleagues conclude that the three types of assistance are interdependent, although providing caregiving time is the primary means of helping a disabled elderly parent. When financial support and/or coresidence are involved, there is a substantial increase in caregiving time.

More details are in "The transfer of resources from middle-aged children to functionally limited elderly parents: Providing time, giving money, sharing space," by Dr. Boaz, Jason Hu, M.B.A., and Yongjia Ye, Ph.D., in the December 1999 issue of The Gerontologist 39(6), pp. 648-657.

Editor's Note: The unit of analysis in this study is the household, not the individuals in the household, because the household is the economic unit whose members pool the resources that are transferred to parents. The HRS sample includes both one-respondent (n=370) and two-respondent (n=1,298) households that have at least one parent who needs help with personal care. The present study is based only on the larger and more complicated sample of two-respondent households.

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