Previous research has examined assistance between generations primarily using retrospective accounts of assistance provided over long time spans. These methods do not capture the everyday hassles and disturbances that are associated with the act of providing daily assistance to a parent. In the present paper, we take a micro-level approach to examine the association of providing routine assistance amidst everyday circumstances and the psychological consequences for the adult child over shorter time spans.
In order to address our first research question, we begin by examining how daily role related experiences are affected on days when assistance is provided compared with when it is not. Past studies that have examined the relationship between work roles and helping roles have found that helpers often have to give up or cut down on personal roles (employee or parental role) to provide assistance (Murphy, et al., 1997
; Stephens, et al., 2001
). Consistent with this idea we find that our sample of helpers were reasonably involved in routine daily chores and work related activities, but on days when assistance was provided they spent less time on work related activities. Notably, we also found that helpers reported more stressors on days when assistance was provided than on days when it was not. Many of the stressors revolved around participants’ social networks. This is an interesting finding since network stressors are events that occur in the lives of others. Perhaps helpers’ expression of care and compassion further exposes them to the stressors of friends and family.
To address our second research question, we use a multivariate analysis approach to examine psychological distress on days when assistance was provided versus days when it was not taking into account the daily role-related experiences and responsibilities and background characteristics. Our results clearly show that even at the micro-level, the enactment of the role of providing routine assistance to a parent is in itself stressful. Consistent with our first hypothesis and in line with previous research that suggests that conflicting demands of helping and other personal roles (e.g. employee, parent) is an important factor that accounts for the negative effects on wellbeing of the helper, we find that any increase in the amount of time spent on work on a given day increases psychological distress on days when assistance is provided. A surprising finding was that time spent on leisure and sleep was also related to higher psychological distress on days when assistance was provided. Since leisure and sleep are also planned activities which may cause role conflict and overload on days when assistance is provided it is not surprising to find that distress was higher on those days. Further research is required to examine the implications of these findings. Some researchers have suggested that if these factors are held constant, providing assistance might lead to positive appraisals of the helping role (Marks, 1998
). Our findings do not support this. Even after controlling for the amount of time spent on activities such as household chores, work, as well as providing help to others, providing assistance to a parent was still found to be significantly related to higher daily psychological distress.
Consistent with our second hypothesis we find clear evidence that being single, non-white and having lower education is associated with higher daily psychological distress (Couch, Daly & Wolf, 1999
; Pinquart & Sörensen, 2006
). Moreover, we also find evidence that personal characteristics such as low neuroticism and high mastery buffer the effects of care enactment on psychological distress. However, we did not find any effects for age, gender and race in our study. This could be because of the relative homogeneity of this sample, since the study was not specifically designed to study assistance provided by adult children. The age range within a sample of adult children would also be more restricted than a sample that also included assistance provided by spouses. It is also possible that differences between sons and daughters are less pronounced than those found between husbands and wives (e.g., Aneshensel et al., 1995
; Miller, 1990
; Zarit, Todd, & Zarit, 1986
; Zarit & Whitlatch, 1992
), or across a wider continuum of assistance (Davey & Szinovacz, 2007
). Likewise, the small proportion of non-whites in the sample made it difficult to find any race effects and also restricts the generalizability of the results.
The present study is among the first systematic studies that have examined the daily impact of providing routine assistance to a parent living outside the house; however, there are several limitations that need to be acknowledged. First of all, the present data were not collected with the intention of understanding routine assistance to parents. We therefore had to rely on global measures of assistance instead of specific dimensions of care such as number of hours of assistance to a parent. Since measures of intensity of providing care were not available, we are not able to clarify whether it is the act of providing care or the intensity of providing care that is more important for predicting psychological distress. Future research should examine the daily intensity of help provision and its consequences on indicators of distress. Additionally, variables that are important predictors of intergenerational exchanges such as parent’s health status and proximity to the parent were not known and so could not be included. Providing assistance to a parent who lives in closer proximity might be physically draining and exhausting, however being far away from a parent might not give adult children immunity from feeling overwhelmed on days the parent requires care. The lack of information about parent’s health status and proximity to parents did not allow us to assess the variability in everyday distress due to these factors. Finally, several interactions between providing daily assistance, daily exposure to stressors and resilience variables were tested, but due to the low power of the study, these could not be estimated and remain to be explored in future diary studies.
Despite these limitations, the current study clearly suggests the possible link between assisting a parent and the downward trajectory of health and well-being that has been found in caregiving. The accumulation of small and large daily stressors may build up and spill over into other areas of life, eventually undermining psychological resources and well-being. Our results also imply that individuals who experience greater role conflict and demand on their time as well as those with the fewest resources experience most distress on days when assistance is provided to parents. These results also suggest new strategies for supporting people assisting parents and other older relatives. Rather than designing respite and support programs in a non-specific way, programs could specifically target the everyday care events that are stressful. By building on an understanding of the daily events that people find stressful, this approach could make daily life easier for older adults and the individuals who support them and prevent the depletion of care resources. By focusing on stressors in this way, support programs may be more effective in relieving caregiver burden, while also giving financial and other support for those with the fewest resources.