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Divorce reduces informal caregiving and economic ties between elderly parents and their adult children

Divorce can negatively affect the parent-child relationship even in the latter part of life, weakening economic ties and reducing informal caregiving, according to a new study which examined the effects of family structure on the relationship between elderly parents (age 70 or older) and their adult children. The study found, for example, that divorced elderly parents, particularly fathers, are less likely than are widowed elderly parents to have adult children willing to provide them with informal care.

The researchers, Barbara Steinberg Schone, Ph.D., of the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, and Liliana E. Pezzin, Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, point out that the nuclear family, a concept based on close genetic and blood ties, is rapidly being replaced by new family patterns due to the high rate of divorce. Their study focused on unmarried (divorced or widowed) parents and their children and looked at four aspects of assistance: parents living with adult children; financial assistance to adult children; and, among disabled elderly parents, adult children's provision of informal care and parental use of formal (paid) care.

The researchers found that the ties to children may be weaker when parents are divorced, and older, divorced parents may provide less financial assistance to their children. In addition, disabled or frail parents may not be able to count on personal and economic support from their children. These findings raise concerns about future generations of elderly parents, who will have experienced higher rates of divorce, and therefore may place greater demands on public and social insurance programs for assistance.

The study, based on data from the first wave of the Assets and Health Dynamics of the Elderly (AHEAD) survey, found that:

  • Divorced fathers are particularly vulnerable to receiving less care in later life due to weaker ties with their children. They are much less likely to live with an adult child and to receive fewer hours of informal care.
  • Ties to stepchildren are not as strong as ties to biological children. Elderly stepparents are more likely to purchase formal care and provide less cash assistance to their stepchildren than to biological children. Elderly parents also are more likely to be sensitive to the characteristics—such as economic and marital status—of their biological children, but the same cannot be said for their stepchildren.
  • Ties to children are further weakened by remarriage. Remarried parents receive less informal care from their children, purchase more hours of formal care, and provide less cash assistance to their children than parents who were married only once.

These and other findings can be found in "Parental marital disruption and intergenerational transfers: An analysis of lone elderly parents and their children," by Drs. Schone and Pezzin, in the August 1999 issue of Demography 36(3), pp. 287-297. Reprints (AHCPR Publication No. 99-R079) are available from the AHCPR Clearinghouse.

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