Dec. 4, 1997 Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: Karen Pyke -- (352) 392-0265, ext. 251
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Many aging parents would rather take the risks of personal freedom than kowtow to their grown children for help with daily living, a University of Florida study finds.
"Older people whose families care for them often feel they must repay their children by deferring to their wishes," said Karen Pyke, a UF sociology professor who did the research. "Many elderly resent this loss of power and would rather do without care -- even if they badly need it -- than pay the price of having to be deferential and obedient toward their children."
Pyke's findings were based on 67 in-depth interviews with aging parents, adult children and adult grandchildren in 20 families in the Los Angeles area. Unlike most caregiving studies, which focus on the children -- usually daughters -- her study relies on the perspectives of both parent and child, she said. The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging.
Conflict with parents and children could escalate, Pyke said, if cost-conscious politicians shift elder care from institutions such as subsidized nursing homes to unpaid family members. She said lawmakers already are concerned about the future costs of caring for millions of aging baby boomers.
"Politicians often call up a nostalgic image of the family of an earlier day, which was often mythical anyway, to invoke this notion of family values, where people care for their elderly parents," she said. "But values alone do not assure that the nation's elderly are taken care of, and politicians ignore the costs parents pay when their children take on this burden."
Elderly parents who get help with yard work, shopping and transportation often feel pressure to comply with their grown children's wishes, Pyke said. For example, one elderly couple in the study reluctantly sold their house and moved into a mobile home after the wife's stroke because their adult children insisted it was too much to care for anymore.
"The smoothest, most harmonious parent-child caregiving relations occurred when parents acquiesced to their children's decisions, something staunch individualistic elders are simply unwilling to do," she said.
When parents refused to obey, children became resentful and often reduced or set firm limits on how much they would help, Pyke said. Loneliness and not receiving needed care were the price parents paid for not subordinating themselves, she said.
Pyke found elderly parents in families that emphasize self-sufficiency and independence over family obligation are especially unhappy at having to be compliant when their children step in. However, even in families where parents normally received more day-to-day help from their children, failure to defer to their children's wishes or express gratitude strained relations between generations, she said.
"We need policies that don't rely on just one model of family life," Pyke said. "Politicians need to recognize that families organize themselves in different ways instead of simply viewing family-based care as a panacea for the problem of elder care in this country."
Actually, suggesting that families don't do enough is something of a myth because most elder care already occurs in families and not in nursing homes, she said.
Feeling overburdened by parental responsibilities and fears about their own future, some children feel increasingly resentful about their role, Pyke said.
For instance, she said, one 85-year-old woman's refusal to put her bed-ridden husband in a nursing home led her son, in his 60s, and his wife to wonder if they would ever have time to enjoy their boat, which had remained docked the entire year.
"For the children," Pyke said, "it was a case of wondering, ‘When do we get a turn to enjoy some leisure before we get old and frail if all we're doing is helping our mother take care of our father?'"
"So much research on intergenerational helping patterns are bookkeeping efforts to say who gets what from whom," said Judith Treas, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine. "Karen Pyke's work has shown how people feel about family care, particularly the emotional downside of feeling put-upon or coerced into doing what you really don't want to do."
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