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Who Cares for their Parents?

New study with SHARE data explores the influence of siblings’ characteristics on an individual child’s care-giving for their parents in Europe

(April 2020) The conditions under which adult children take over care tasks for their parents have been subject of extensive research. However, there is little knowledge about the role of sibling characteristics in the collective decision-making within multiple-child families in Europe. Not only a child’s own propensity to care, but also the prospects of his or her siblings could adjust the care an adult child provides. Thus, while it is true that the more siblings there are, the less care the individual child has to burden, the division may not be equal. With their newest study, Belgian researchers Vergauwen and Mortelmans tried to bring light into the matter.

Factors that may influence care-giving: gender, cost estimation and personal relationships

Based on life course and family systems theory, the authors formed three groups of care-giving determinants. The first assumption is that, although siblings often take up a joint care responsibility, a family’s gender composition matters. Earlier research has detected a clear gender bias in caregiving: While care for parents is still regarded daughters’ work, sons frequently shirk from parent care. The role of daughters as principal care-giver could not be explained by different resources and constraints of men and women. Instead, it presumably arises from the normative believe that family care is crucial to the female gender identity.

Moreover, it is expected that children encountering the lowest care costs (mostly in the sense of time) are most likely to provide assistance to their parents. Care costs are measured via the geographic proximity to the parents, by children’s own family’s demands and by their state of employment, since those factors determine the amount of time a child can spend on care. Finally, children may take up more care when their siblings have less contact to their parents. Parent-child commitment is measured as the frequency of contact, since feelings of closeness are a determinant for care-giving and can vary between siblings. Additionally, the authors evaluated for country differences across Europe, taking into account different welfare systems and cultural contexts.

SHARE’s longitudinal data allows to deal for endogeneity

The study draws on data from waves 5 and 6 (2013-2015) of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). SHARE contains consistent information on care receiving of parents, as well as on their children’s characteristics. After filtering for minor and lone children, the authors obtain a sample of 79,020 parent-child dyads. In 2.69 percent of these cases, children transitioned into care-giving within the selected time period. A major strength of the SHARE data in this research’s context is that it allows to deal with endogeneity of the sibling predictors. The longitudinal design takes into account the temporal ordering of the transition into care-giving and thus allows the sibling characteristics prior to care provision to be tested.

Gender and care-caused expenses are pivotal for siblings’ distribution of care

Regarding sibling characteristics, the authors find evidence for a gender bias. Daughters start caring the most, especially in families with brothers only. Sons, in turn, are more likely to enter a caring role if they don’t have any sisters. This gendered intergenerational care is not attributable to other factors (than gender), including daughters’ care opportunities from a sibling perspective. The finding predominantly holds for southern European countries. Further, the study finds support that children start to care more frequently when their siblings experience higher costs in terms of travelling distance and employment responsibilities, and that children are more likely to begin care-giving if their siblings have less parent-child contact. Siblings’ competing family demands seem to have no influence on care transition. Overall, children with ‘legitimate excuses’ or high costs of care-giving are inclined to allocate care for parents to siblings, while children with less family-involved siblings are likely to provide care. This impact does not vary substantially between European regions.

Further research could explore the detected gender bias in more detail

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 care-giving will further develop. The present study contributes to this knowledge by showing that individual features are not sufficient to predict a child’s care-giving. Still, there are many more details to explore. For instance, existing research, including the present paper, focuses on typical female care tasks. Hence, future research should add or distinguish between other types of support, like home repairs or financial matters. This might improve the relative position of sons and avoid a selection bias.


Study by Jorik Vergauwen and Dimitri Mortelmans (2019): An integrative analysis of sibling influences on adult children’s care-giving for parents. Ageing & Society, 1–25. DOI: 10.1017/S0144686X19001156

URL: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ageing-and-society/article/an-integrative-analysis-of-sibling-influences-on-adult-childrens-caregiving-for-parents/038C6F299E62380F9C954A9A586A28CD

Photo: Adobe Stock / Chaay_tee