Caring for Family

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What people think or believe does not always correspond to how they

actually behave. It is much easier to say that one feels solidarity toward

older people than it is to behave according to that feeling. What picture

arises when we look at concrete care and support provided to older

people? How do the recipients of the care experience that support and

which motives are underlying the behavior of the caregivers?

Figures of the European Community Household Panel of 1994 show

that adult children, particularly women, provide a large share of the

informal care given to older generations (Dykstra 1997). About 10%of a ll

European adults between thirty-five and sixty-four years of age provide

unpaid care to members of older generations on a daily basis, about 14%

of women versus 6% of men. In the Netherlands about 13% of a l a dult

women, in particular those between forty-five and fifty-four, provide

informal care to aged people, an ample half of them spending more than

four hours daily.

Dykstraa nd de Jong-Gierveld (1997) have examined the conditions

under which parents receive support from their children, using a sample

of 1,122 Dutch men and women between fifty-five and eighty-nine, who

required care. A distinction between informal and formal care was made,

and people with and without a partner as well as divorced or widowed

people were included in the sample. The results are shown in Table 7.2.

Aged people with a partner are in the first place receiving help from

their partners.With respect to intergenerational solidarity it is interesting

to observe that 15%to 20%of the aged people who still have a partner receive

help from their children. Children apparently are the second source

of help but, for people who need help and do not have a partner, they

are the first source to rely on. This appliesmuch more strongly to people

whosepartner has died than todivorced people.Apparently, a divorcemay

have long-term consequences for the relationship with children. It is far

less self-evident for children of divorced parents to provide informal care

table 7.2. Sources of Help forMen andWomen Aged Fifty-five and Older, Having

Children, and Requiring Daily Practical Help (%)

First Ever Ever

Marriage Widowed Divorced


With (marital) partner, receives informal care from

Partner 63 63 54 –a 47 73

Other members of the household 5 5 3 –a 3 12

Children living outside the home 25 25 23 –a 0 15

Other family members 4 3 6 –a 3 0

With (marital) partner, receives formal care 18 26 20 –a 18 42

Without (marital) partner, receives informal care from

Members of the household –a –a 8 7 0 3

Children living outside the home –a –a 47 53 13 23

Other family members –a –a 6 11 0 10

Without (marital) partner, receives formal care –a –a 54 50 50 46

a Too few cases.

Source: Dykstraa nd de Jong-Gierveld (1997).

and help than it is for children whose parents are still married. Divorced

fathers, of all categories, receive the least support fromtheir children. On

the other hand, children from a possible second marriage have a more

important share in caring for their once divorced fathers than is the case

for their divorced mothers. As to the relationship between informal and

formal care, Dykstra and de Jong-Gierveld (1997) conclude that those

who receive little informal care do not seem to appeal for formal care

more frequently. On the contrary, the most frequent users of informal

resources are at the same time using formal resources to the largest extent.

Several investigations suggest a relationship between social class and

intergenerational solidarity. Kulis (1992), for instance, points to certain

commonideaswith respect tosolidarityandsocial class: it is often thought

that lower-class people offer each other mainly practical and instrumental

help, whereas the middle and higher social strata would more often

exchange emotional and financial support. In a large-scale survey Kulis

distinguished between instrumental, economic, and social help.He found

that, contrary to existing beliefs, middle-class parents offered more instrumental

help to their children than lower-class parents did; the same

applied to financial and social-emotional help. Froma secondary analysis

of the data of the Dutch research into gift giving already mentioned in

earlier chapters, a class-bound difference in gift-giving patterns appeared

to exist between a“ friends culture” and a“ family culture.” More highly

educated people appeared to give more to friends, whereas the lessereducated

gave mainly to family. This was the case for all kinds of gifts,

material as well as nonmaterial, including care and help (Komter and

Vollebergh 1997).

Finally, it is important to pay some attention to family solidarity in the

context of the immigration society that many Western European countries

have become over the past decades. In their research among legal and

illegal immigrants in the Netherlands, Engbersen and Burgers demonstrate

substantial patterns ofmutual care and help (Komter, Burgers, and

Engbersen 2000). A special form of family solidarity among members

of minority groups is the continuous financial support in the form of

regular remittances provided to family members who have remained in

their native country. In times that are increasingly characterized by immigrants’

transnational activities and border-crossing ties and loyalties

(Snel and Engbersen 2002), it can be expected that transnational forms

of family solidarity will increase rather than diminish.

The Troubled Side of Family Solidarity

An interesting finding is that a high level of intergenerational solidarity

does not necessarily coincide with the psychological well-being of aged

family members (Mutran and Reitzes 1984) and in some cases may even

threaten it (Roberts, Richards, and Bengtson 1991). Under certain conditions,

such as strong financial pressures, high family solidarity generates

mental tension caused by obligations that are too much and too heavy

and by too strong an appeal to one’s time and resources. In a smallscale

qualitative investigation among older men and women in London,

Gail Wilson (1993) found also that intergenerational solidarity is not

self-evidently experienced as something positive. Often there is a lack of

reciprocity (old age restricts the possibility to return help and care), causing

feelings of dependency. Receiving and accepting help and care is not

without problems in this case.Moreover, the care may be experienced as

a form of control – is the house kept clean enough, does one eat regular

meals?Many young people experience the care they provide to their aged

parents as a burden. Several aged respondents from Wilson’s research

remarked that when the young offer a lot of help, “love declines and duty

takes over” (1993: 639). Also Janet Finch argues in her book Family Obligations

and Social Change (1989) that women’s motives to care for their

aged family members may be rooted in a formof “prescribed altruism,” a

strongly felt inner norm of being obliged to demonstrate solidarity with

aged family members. These inner obligations to intergenerational solidarity

are, of course, strongly connected to the gendered division of labor

and care that still survives in our society.

Various studies on aging and the family discuss the possible negative

consequences of intergenerational solidarity, the ways the caregiver’s

psychological well-being may be threatened (Ryff and Seltzer 1995, 1996),

or the impact stressful events may have on the quality of parent-child

relations (Suitor et al. 1995). Family support can become troubled by

conflictive aspects of relationships (House, Umberson, and Landis 1988;

Bengtson 2001). People may control their relatives or express all kinds of

relational demands, thereby burdening the relationship.AsBoszormenyi-

Nagy and Spark have argued convincingly (1973), feelings of loyalty, solidarity,

and mutual trust are dependent upon the silent bookkeeping of

giving and receiving among family members. This silent bookkeeping

may be transmitted from one generation to the next. Parents try to make

up for shortcomings in their own upbringing by giving their children

what they missed themselves; children again compensate for the imperfections

they experienced. In reality family ties are often a mixture of

(longings for) love and disappointment or anger, feelings of dependency,

and a desire for autonomy – in short, they are essentially ambivalent

(Luescher and Pillemer 1998). Troubled or ambivalent feelings underlying

family ties may be an important cause of a later lack of solidarity, or

of a solidarity characterized by insincerity, insecurity, and stress.

In the Netherlands Ali de Regt (1993) has signaled the sense of obligation

that many young people feel toward their parents. Often these

feelings are aroused when paying their parents a visit, or helping them

in case of illness. As a consequence of their increased financial resources

parents nowadays are caring for their children during a much longer period

than was the case in the past when children went out to work at

a much younger age. Formerly existing expectations of children caring

for the physical and material well-being of their parents have become

less compelling, but the new financial dependency of children may contribute

to their feeling obliged toward their parents. Although affection

will in many cases be involved in the relationship between parents and

their young adult children, these feelings are not self-evident (they perhaps

never were) and will often be mixed up with forms of “prescribed


There are some empirical indications of a gender difference in caring

motives: daughters would be more often driven by altruistic motives

whereas among sons feelings of obligation, expectations concerning inheritance,

and the frequency of existing contacts would prevail (Dykstra

and de Jong-Gierveld 1997). More generally, feelings and motives prove

to be strongly related to the category towhom help and care are provided:

feelings of moral obligation are predominant when help is given to family

but help to friends is more often accompanied by feelings of affection,

regardless of gender (Komter and Vollebergh 1997).

The evidence suggests that the existing concern about the level of contemporary

family solidarity is not justified: neither in the United States

nor in certain European countries has a significant decline in the level of

help and care provided by adult children to their parents been observed,

and people’s beliefs reveal a clear awareness of their own obligations toward

the older generation. Small-scale, in-depth studies such asWilson’s

are still scarce, but it is exactly this type of study that could shed light

on the more problematic aspects of family solidarity (Johnson 2000). In

distinguishing the motives for caring for family members, there seems to

be a subtle balance between reciprocity, affection, and obligation.