CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA -- Adult
siblings are learning to share in the care of their elderly
While the eldest daughter still tends to shoulder the
heaviest burden of caring for aging parents, more and more
adult children are pitching in, says Steven Stern, professor
of economics at the University of Virginia.
"Families often behave as if there is only one
caregiver," said Stern. "While there is usually one child
who is the primary caregiver, other adult children are often
willing to help out, within the limits of their
capabilities. Often, the caregiver may not think to consult
with her siblings and she misses out on opportunities to get
But this has been changing. Stern, and his co-author,
Tenille Checkovitch, now a Yale-educated lawyer and formerly
an undergraduate student at U.Va. majoring in economics,
studied the arrangements families make to care for aging
parents in their article, "Shared Care-giving Responsibility
of Adult Siblings with Elderly Parents," published in the
current issue of the Journal of Human Resources, which
appeared on June 21.
The researchers found that:
- Women provide more care than men.
- Race has little impact on a child's decision to care for
parents, after taking into account other family
- Children living farther away from their parents provide
- Children provide more care for parents who need help with
the tasks of daily living, such as dressing, eating and
- The more children in the family, the less care each child
provides, although total care increases.
Families seem to fall into two different groups, Stern
says. In one, the children make their caregiving decisions
independently; in the other, they work as a team. "It has
something to do with family dynamics," Stern says. Stern
and his colleague took issue with previous research that
suggested that siblings compete with each other for future
bequests by helping their parents. Stern's results did not
substantiate that argument, showing instead that sibling
rivalry didn't lead to more help from all the
children. Instead, more help from one child tended to result
in less help from the others.
Above all, the authors found that families often have more
flexibility in caring for aging parents than they may
realize and most or all the children no matter their gender,
income levels or the distance they live from their parents
should be involved in making decisions. "Decisions don't
happen in a vacuum," Stern said. "Children take into account
the care-giving decisions of their siblings when making
their own decisions."
"What this means is that health care providers should
include all the adult children, as much as possible, in
caregiving decisions," Stern said. "And public policymakers
should realize that programs of long-term care for the
elderly will affect the adult children in these families, as
well as the elderly parents themselves."
The challenge is growing. Improved nutrition and medical
care are lengthening life spans, but as people age, their
physical and mental impairments increase, leading to an
expanding need for long-term care. By 2030, there will be
an estimated 70 million people over 65 in the United States,
according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. And while only 7
percent of America's oldest population -- 85 and above --
lived in institutions in 1940, 25 percent do now, research
"Needs are complex, but solutions are easier to come by
when children talk to one another and share the care," Stern
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