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Who will take care of mom and dad?

How sibling characteristics relate to children’s care for parents in Europe

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man and woman sitting on brown wooden bench during daytime

Source: Ray S 

Family members, especially partners and children, contribute strongly to caring for older persons. A better understanding of care dynamics in families is crucial as informal elderly care reduces public care costs and adds to the preferred option of ageing in place. The care for older parents is often the outcome of interdependent decisions in multiple-child families. While the individual determinants of children’s caregiving for dependent parents are well-documented, little is known about the role of sibling characteristics concerning individual children’s caregiving. A child’s decision to provide care may take siblings’ care opportunities and constraints into account. For example, rigid working hours and a demanding family life of a sibling.

Hence, Jorik Vergauwen and Dimitri Mortelmans (University of Antwerp) aim to reveal how gender, family situation, employment and parent-child contact of siblings relates to a child’s caregiving. The analysis draws on data (collected in 2013 and 2015) from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) including both information on parents’ care use and child characteristics. The authors take a longitudinal approach by examining the impact of sibling characteristics prior to a child’s potential start of care provision. This avoids reversed causality as caregiving may forge changes among children and their siblings (e.g. a child may start to work when a brother or sister takes the care burden).

The results reflect that the gendered nature of care is still a vital aspect of informal caregiving for parents. Daughters are most likely to enter a caring role, especially in families with only brothers. Sons, from their side, start caregiving more in the absence of sisters. Male-dominated compositions require sons to divide care between brothers. Regional comparisons indicate that this gendered pattern of caregiving predominantly holds for southern European countries. Elderly care remains the responsibility of the family and most notably daughters in Mediterranean countries.

Furthermore, this study suggests that the closest residing children and children with siblings living at farther distances are most likely to commence caretaking. This confirms that geographic proximity facilitates care exchanges within families. Regarding contact frequency, we find that children with the most parent-child contact are also more inclined to start caregiving. Likewise, children with siblings who have higher contact frequencies show lower care propensities. This confirms that committed children maintaining good connections are the principal caretaking candidates. Being the only child in the sibling group without a job also significantly increases the odds of caregiving. The parental and partner status of siblings show negligible associations with the individual caring of children.

This research shows that siblings can play a meaningful role vis-à-vis individual care decisions. At present, older people in Europe often have a rich pool of family members upon which to call for personal assistance. However, in the context of population ageing, shrinking families and welfare systems under pressure, it is essential to understand how the intra-family organization of intergenerational caregiving will further develop.

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Jorik Vergauwen