Little Family Support Found for Divorced Elderly

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 23, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Divorced older adults receive less direct care and financial support from their children, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Experts say the findings have implications for public policy, as a staggering number of divorced baby boomers become seniors.

Researchers surveyed almost 3,000 unmarried seniors, aged 70 or older, with biological children and stepchildren. The survey questions focused on where parents resided and the amounts of financial support and direct care received from their children.

The data showed that divorced older adults are significantly less likely to reside with and receive care from their children, even if they are disabled. And children that do provide support are more likely to pay for professional care. In comparison with biological children, stepchildren provide half as much monetary support and spend half as much time with aging divorced parents. Remarriage reduces the figures further, particularly for fathers.

"By 2010, older adults will [be] about 20% of the U.S. population, and half of them will be divorced," says lead researcher Liliana Pezzin, PhD, an economist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore. "This could have an enormous impact on Medicare and Medicaid." Pezzin tells WebMD that the burden of care is likely to fall on the public sector.

"And that means social programs may need to be changed. Rather than providing home health care for seniors, one alternative is to provide financial support for their caregivers," says Pezzin. Other experts say that bonding between parents and children can be improved at the same time, particularly with stepchildren.

"There's research underway to help improve the bond between parents and children," says Rose Li, PhD, the chief of demography at the National Institute on Aging. "The data suggest that bonding between stepparents and stepchildren is not as tight, and this is critical because the number of stepchildren is expected to increase significantly over the next 10 years." Li tells WebMD that questions remain about caring for divorced aging parents, and the researchers agree.

"Generalizing these findings to a larger population is somewhat limited by the research design," says Pezzin. "More research is needed to investigate how the timing of divorce affects bonding. At present, we're exploring the care of divorced aging parents from the perspective of their children."

The study was funded in part by the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research and was published in the journal Demographics.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers report that compared with married seniors, divorced older adults receive less direct care and financial support from their children.
  • The researchers add that this discrepancy has enormous implications for Medicaid and Medicare.
  • Researchers and observers both note that more research is needed about how children bond with their parents as well as the best ways to fund care programs for older divorced adults.