Older mothers overwhelmingly choose daughters as caregivers

June 19, 2006

Mothers aged 65 to 75 are almost four times more likely to expect a daughter, rather than a son, to be their caregiver if they become sick or disabled, reports a new Cornell University study.

These mothers also are much more likely to name a child to whom they feel emotionally close and who has values similar to their own, report Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell, and Purdue University sociologist Jill Suitor, in the August issue of the journal The Gerontologist.

"Surprisingly, however, such factors as children's competing marital or parental roles and responsibilities, their mental health, legal or abuse problems are not related to which child mothers view as their likely future caregiver," said Pillemer. "Mothers weren't especially concerned about practical aspects of whether an adult child could care for them. They expected care from the child they felt closest to and who had more similar values, even if he or she had serious life problems of his or her own, or had other competing responsibilities."

Pillemer and Suitor, the study's principal investigator, based their study on in-person interviews with a representative sample of 566 mothers in the greater Boston area. Their study is the first large-scale research to include detailed data about all living children of older people.

The sociologists also found that whether children had received support from their mothers in the recent past was not taken into consideration by the mothers, despite evidence from other studies that indicate that it is precisely such children who are mostly likely to provide help when it is needed. The older mothers, rather, tended to name the child from whom they had received the most help in the past -- and that was usually a daughter.

"Gender was definitely the trump card," Pillemer said. "Mothers vastly expected that daughters would care for them, even if there were available sons. Gender was presented as essentially self-explanatory by many of the respondents."

Daughters were probably named so often, he said, because mothers tend to feel closest to daughters, because of their shared experiences and also because of embarrassment if sons had to perform personal-care tasks.

Discussing future care with older parents is important, Pillemer emphasized, because aging parents' expectations may not be realistic.

"With the extraordinary growth in the older population, and more and more adult children being called upon to provide care for their older parents, there's potential for a serious clash between parents' expectations, adult children's expectations and what is realistic," he said, noting that the current aging population tended to have large families, so negotiating which sibling will be the primary caregiver is important. "A mismatch between expectations could be a source of conflict, stress and disappointment."
The study was supported, in part, by the National Institute on Aging.

Cornell University

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