Aging Parents’ Care May Fall to Favored Children

By Elizabeth Thielke / Posted on 29 September 2010

As an only child, I never had to worry about how caring for my mother when she had cancer was going to be divided. It was either me, or my dad. While there were many disadvantages regarding this situation, the main advantage of my situation was that I didn’t have to argue with anyone regarding her care. I can fully appreciate that as I’ve witnessed friends from large families having major disagreements about their parents’ care.

I have three kids of my own, a daughter and two sons. My daughter is the oldest, and the only girl, and I often worry that she’ll shoulder the burden of our care when the time comes. I really can’t worry about it, though, since I know nothing about dividing tasks with siblings.

But, it turns out that the attributes of oldest or only female may not be all that plays into these decisions. Research from Cornell University indicates that parental favoritism may determine which adult child carries the most responsibility for a parent’s care:

…the care of the elderly falls mostly to their children and that one child usually shoulders the bulk of the responsibility. Mothers also express clear ideas about whom they want and expect to take on that role, it turns out, so their partiality has consequences.

The study goes on to report that most mothers prefer the child to whom they fee most emotionally close to, and with whom they feel they share the most values. Interestingly, the preferences for a caregiver don’t consider whether the child has competing demands on her (usually “her”) time, such as a job. Expectations about care giving were found to be an emotional, rather than practical decision.

Certainly, people may have different experiences in their families, but this information emphasizes the need for families to have frank discussions about responsibility for elder care, so that expectations are known sooner rather than later.

-Elizabeth Thielke


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