OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Elderly parents often neglected in research

02/24/1998

CORVALLIS - The ever-growing life span of Americans has increased research on the relationships between adults and their elderly parents, but experts say that field of study is sorely lacking in input from the focus of those studies - the elderly.

Most research concentrates on adults who have parents with Alzheimer's disease or other debilitating conditions that require constant care, according to Sarah H. Matthews, a visiting professor in the College of Home Economics and Education at Oregon State University. Few studies, she said, look at the positive aspects of the relationship.

"We've made it seem like old parents are burdens rather than contributors to the family," Matthews said.

A professor of sociology at Cleveland State University, Matthews is the inaugural Jo Anne L. Petersen Visiting Scholar in Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU. She will present a colloquium on Tuesday, March 3, entitled "Where are the Parents in Research on Parent Care?" The free, public event will begin at 3:30 p.m. in Weniger Hall 153.

Matthews is a nationally known expert in the field of family gerontology, including caregiving to elderly parents, sibling ties in later life, friendship among the elderly, and grandparenthood. While at OSU winter term, she is exploring how family structure - including gender and size of sibling groups - affects the way adult children meet their parents' needs.

As part of her studies, Matthews interviewed 149 pairs of siblings who had parents aged 75 or older. Relationships between adults and their parents vary greatly, she said, though in general siblings of the same gender are more likely to see eye-to-eye on what is best for their parents than brothers and sisters.

A number of factors are important in intergenerational relationships, Matthews said, beginning with proximity.

"Geography is one of the most important considerations, in particular, helping to ease the transportation needs of the parents," Matthews said. "Many elderly parents can still get along fine at home, but because of vision problems, or perhaps a stroke, they can't drive to the store or for medical treatment. Often you'll see the parents - who are no longer tied to the labor market - move closer to their children."

In many cases, Matthews said, the interactions are an extension of previous relationships, although the children may be providing more physical support. Often, however, the parents still have more monetary resources and are contributing financially to their children.

"The point is, that these aren't the burdensome relationships so often portrayed," Matthews said. "Many families have gotten together regularly for reunions or holidays - not because of some sense of duty, but because they want to - and those relationships have continued later in life. Elderly parents can contribute a lot to the family.

"On the whole, adult children prefer to have parents than to be orphans, although they sometimes are sad about the quality of their parents' lives."