Despite the common perception of the elderly being dependent and forcing middle-aged children into the role of caregiver, older parents frequently give support to their adult children — and that may benefit their own mental health.
In fact for some, the act of giving to their children may relieve stress and depression. However, the issue becomes complicated as mental health benefits hinge on what type of support is provided and if the elder views giving as a highly rewarding action.
“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,” said researcher and doctoral student Lauren Bangerter of Penn State University.
Researchers from Penn State, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Michigan examined the association between the support that aging parents give to their middle-aged offspring, the parents’ perception of this support as rewarding or stressful and the parents’ levels of depressive symptoms.
Specifically, investigators evaluated 337 older-parent participants of The Family Exchanges Study. As part of The Family Exchanges Study, the participants rated how frequently they provided different types of support to their adult children.
Bangerter and her colleagues grouped support into two general types, tangible and nontangible.
Tangible support included practical support and financial assistance, such as fixing something around the house, running an errand, providing a ride, giving or loaning money, and helping to purchase goods, services, insurance, or education.
Nontangible support included emotional support, companionship, talking about daily events, and giving advice.
Researchers then assessed depressive symptoms of parents, using a 53-item self-report scale, which measures depressive symptoms commonly observed in everyday settings.
Parents rated to what extent they felt lonely, blue, worthless, hopeless about the future or had no interest in things.
As discussed in the journal, The Gerontologist, researchers found significant interactions between tangible support and feelings of reward, and between nontangible support and feelings of stress in explaining parents’ depressive symptoms.
In particular, the team’s results suggest that parents who view giving as highly rewarding report higher levels of depressive symptoms when they give low amounts of tangible support, and lower levels of depressive symptoms when they give high amounts of tangible support.
In contrast, parents who do not view giving as highly rewarding report higher levels of depressive symptoms when they give high amounts of tangible support, and lower levels of depressive symptoms when they give lower amounts of tangible support.
“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,” said Steven Zarit, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State.
“In addition, our results suggest that depressive symptoms are more frequent when the level of reward a parent feels regarding giving is inconsistent with the amount of tangible support that he or she actually gives.”
This article first appeared on Psych Central on 26 February, 2014.