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Helping Adult Children Affects Well-Being of Older Parents
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Feb 18th 2014
I've written before about generativity as a path to wellness - that is, the idea that it's good for us to give back to society by nurturing future generations or otherwise helping change the world in a positive direction. This makes sense, doesn't it? The more we give back, the better we feel about ourselves and our purpose in life.
But does being generous always make us feel good? Apparently not, according to a study recently published in The Gerontologist. The study focused on older parents who have helped their middle-age children by providing either tangible or intangible support. Tangible support might be money, but it also might be practical help like watching the grandkids or putting a son or daughter in touch with a business associate who helped solve a problem. Intangible support might entail emotional support, listening, encouragement, or giving advice.
In the study, 337 older parents (their average age was 76) were asked about types of support provided to a middle-age child as well as whether they found it rewarding or stressful to give the support. The researchers also measured depressive symptoms among the participants.
I have to admit, when I first read the methods for this study, I predicted that older parents would find it more rewarding to provide intangible support and more stressful to provide support of a tangible nature, and that increased stress would be linked to more depressive symptoms. As it turned out, I was asking the wrong question. It wasn't the type of support that mattered when it came to depression; it was the older parents' perceptions of providing support that seemed to influence depressive symptoms the most.
When older parents viewed generativity as rewarding, they showed low levels of depressive symptoms, particularly when giving tangible support. But those who saw generativity as stressful showed more depressive symptoms, even when they were asked to provide small amounts of intangible support.
What do we make of this? Not surprisingly, it all comes down to our thinking. It's stunning how powerful our views of life and its ups and downs can impact our mood and well-being. While the study didn't try to do this, we can surmise that some cognitive reappraisal (that is, helping the older adults examine their thinking about helping their middle-age children and make adjustments where necessary) could reshape their views about generativity in a positive direction. By doing so, older parents might experience less depression when called upon to help children long after they have left the nest.
If you think you could use some cognitive reappraisal to help reshape your views on a complex situation, see my article on the technique of reframing.
Bangerter, L. R., Kim, K., Zarit, S. H., Birditt, K. S., & Fingerman, K. L. (2014). Perceptions of giving support and depressive symptoms in late life. The Gerontologist, Advance Access. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnt210