Research — 31 December 2012

An aging parent who cares for an adult child with mental illness or developmental disabilities is at increased risk — 38 percent more — for developing disabilities as well, according to a new study.

The research sheds light on the economic and psychosocial challenges faced by parents of adult children with disabilities, compared with parents of children without disabilities.

The researchers found that when either parent becomes disabled, families experience lower financial well-being. This is especially true when an aging parent must take on the needs of an adult child with mental illness and a spouse who develops an age-related disability.

As a result, the overburdened parents become susceptible to developing disabilities and chronic conditions as they age.

“By age 60, parents caring for adult children with mental illness were more likely to have a spouse with a disability, than parents of children with developmental disabilities or than those with whose children had no disabilities,” said Subharati Ghosh, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at Brandeis University.

During the study, when one parent who cared for an adult child with mental illness became disabled, the family experienced lower financial well-being than a comparison group that did not have a child with disabilities, Ghosh said.

Parents of adult children with disabilities often suffer from a heavy financial burden, as many expenses they acquire are not fully covered by insurance.

The study results suggest that targeted policy measures may be needed to better support aging parents of adult children with disabilities.

These families are especially vulnerable during retirement not only to the onset of their own disabilities, but also to extreme financial problems.

The study used data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has followed over 10,000 high school graduates and their families since 1957.

The new research is published in the journal, Psychiatric Services.

As first appeared in Psych Central, 28 December 2012.


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