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Mental health of elderly may be affected by perceptions of support for their kids

Harold Mandel's picture
An elderly mother and daughter

Families serve as an integral part of the nurturing of mental health in people. This is precisely why depictions of how difficult life generally is for kids being raised without parents in foster homes are generally right on target. It is interesting to note that it appears to often be the natural yearning of parents to give the same type of nuturing support for their adult kids as when they were growing up, and for children to return this caring attitude. New research shows the attitudes of parents about supporting their grown children may in fact have an influence on their own mental health.

Research has shown that parents benefit psychologically from generativity, which is giving and caring for the next generation, reports The Gerontologist. However, the perceptions of older adults on giving support to their children have rarely if ever been explored in these studies. New research has examined the association which exists between the support that aging parents give to one of their middle-aged offspring, their perception of this support as rewarding or stressful, and the levels of depressive symptoms which they experience.

In this study elderly parents reported tangible and nontangible forms of support which were given to the target middle-aged child and the extent to which they viewed providing such support as being stressful and/or rewarding. The researchers found significant interactions between tangible support and their feelings of reward and between nontangible support and their feelings of stress in helping to explain parental depressive symptoms. Lower levels of depressive symptoms were experienced by parents who found giving support to be highly rewarding when giving high amounts of tangible support.

Conversely, it was observed that parents who view giving support to be a highly stressful thing to do experienced higher levels of depressive symptoms when they gave low amounts of nontangible support. These findings have suggested older parents’ perceptions of supporting their offspring may condition how generativity affects their mental health. The bottom line is parents' attitudes about helping their grown children appears to affect their mental health, as reported by Penn State on Feb. 24, 2014 in a discussion of this research.

Elderly parents often give help to their middle-aged offspring. According to researchers, their own perceptions about giving this help may affect their own mental health. Lauren Bangerter, Ph.D. student in human development and family studies at Penn State, has said, "We usually view the elderly as needy, but our research shows that parents ages 60 and over are giving help to their children, and this support is often associated with lower rates of depression among the older adults."

The researchers evaluated 337 older-parent participants of The Family Exchanges Study. As part of The Family Exchanges Study, the participants were asked to rate how frequently they provided different types of support to their adult children. Support was grouped into two general types by Bangerter and her colleagues: tangible and nontangible. Tangible support included practical support and financial assistance, such as:

1: Fixing something around the house

2: Running an errand

3: Providing a ride

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4: Giving or loaning money

5: Helping to purchase goods, services, insurance or education

Nontangible support included:

1: Emotional support

2: Companionship

3: Talking about daily events

4: Giving advice

The research team's results have suggested that parents who view giving as being highly rewarding report higher levels of depressive symptoms when they give low amounts of tangible support. The parents in this category also generally report lower levels of depressive symptoms when they give high amounts of tangible support. To the contrary, parents who do not view giving as being highly rewarding report higher levels of depressive symptoms when they give high amounts of tangible support. The parents in this category also report lower levels of depressive symptoms when they give lower amounts of tangible support.

Steven Zarit, Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State, has commented, "Although past research shows that giving support declines with age, our data show that parents frequently provide both tangible and nontangible support to their grown children." Zarit points out that in addition, their results have suggested that depressive symptoms are more frequent when the level of reward a parent feels in regard to giving is inconsistent with the amount of tangible support that he or she actually gives.

It appears to me that the aging process for parents and children generally moves along in more stable manners when the roles of parenting are appreciated throughout life. Clearly, parents who have invested themselves heavily in raising their children feel more gratified when they are in a position to continue helping them as they age, as supported by this study. I think it is also interesting to note that even as adults it appears children also feel better emotionally when they perceive a continued caring attitude by their elderly parents and when they are in a position to also offer caring support to their parents in return. More research should be done along these lines.

This research and a suggestion of further research is very significant in view of the observation that psychiatrists have a tendency to break down traditional family roles in societies across the world by insisting they have the professional and legal imperative to take over all vital affairs dealing with the emotional and other needs of adults and children alike. This attitude seems to always result in
creating mental health issues for all members of the family who lose their traditional autonomous
roles which leave them in a position to help each other due to such interventions.