Children of Divorce: Less Engaged Caregivers?

Craig Stoltz Health Guide
  • Do adult children of divorce provide less caregiving to their aging parents than children of an unbroken marriage? A widely reported study suggests this may be so. (My emphasis on the "may.")


    Since this has considerable potential implications, let's look closely.


    Bottom line first


    A report in by Temple University researcher Adam Davey suggests that marital transitions such as divorce, particularly when the disruption occurs when children are older, may reduce the adult child's participation in caregiving for the older parents.


    This study in 50 words or less


    Davey analyzed data from the National Survey of Family and Households collected between 1987 and 1994. Over 2,000 parents aged 50 and older reported on their 7,000-plus adult children. Davey found a link between marital transitions, including later-in-childhood divorce, and less engagement with an aging parent's daily needs.

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    Yes, but. . .


    As a piece of research, this report has several significant weaknesses that make its conclusions less persuasive:


    Data about adult children's behavior was gathered from the parents via questionnaire. It was not corroborated by the children or other observations. Parents' observations alone of two-sided relationships are not in themselves fully dependable.


    The findings suggest the differences in caregiver behavior may be linked to geographic separation and other lifestyle factors, not to a diminished overall relationship. The quality of the full relationships was not explored inthis study.


    News reports on this study are based on a press release issued by Temple University focussing on one aspect of the study.


    As of this writing, I could get only an unpublished version of the manuscript. It is an exploration of 7 different hypotheses, not just the most widely reported finding. Other queries involve care from parents to adult children, the effect of remarriage, gender of parents and children, nature of transition, and others. A study looking at multiple questions is often considered less conclusive than one that gathers data for one targeted purpose. 


    So what are you going to do about it?


    If you're a caregiver, the possible takeaways are hardly surprising:
    • Geographic separation makes it harder to help parents with daily chores. Keep in mind that your parent may need this regulat attention from someone nearby, perhaps from a paid caregiver or social service if other family members do not live close.
    • Sustaining a healthy relationship after divorce, particularly one that comes later in life, is important for many reasons, including (perhaps) the quality and amount of care an adult child can offer an aging parent.
    • If you are the child of parent divorced or was widowed later in your life, these findings may provide a good opportunity to look at your relationship with aging parents, and whether they are getting sufficient care. 

    Learn more


    Our site is full of advice for caregivers of aging parents, including experts who are both advocates and caregivers themselves.


Published On: September 24, 2007