In a previous post, I described the results of a nationally representative sample of grown children who had elderly parents. Whether they were sons or daughters, Black or white, the single children consistently helped their parents more than the coupled or married children did. But why?
Because the single and coupled offspring could have differed in ways other than their relationship status, the authors looked at whether those kinds of differences mattered. When they controlled for (statistically) whether the single and coupled sons and daughters had kids (and how many), and how many hours they worked at home (housework) as well as in the labor market, the results were still the same: the single kids helped more. That seems to suggest that it wasn’t just a matter of the single offspring having more time. The authors also looked at the possible role of the number of siblings the grown kids had, their health, income, and education, as well as their parents’ economic status. When those factors were controlled, the results were still the same: single sons and daughters helped more than married or coupled ones did.
Results from this US sample are similar to the results from a study in the UK. Ursula Henz analyzed the responses of a nationally representative sample of more than 9,000 British adults to the question, “Do you currently or have you ever regularly looked after someone, for at least three months, who is sick, disabled, or elderly?” She found that singles had done so more often than married people.
We don’t know much about why single sons and daughters help their elderly parents more than married ones do. And studies like this cannot prove that being single caused people to help more, nor do they show that every single person helps more than every married person.
Keeping those qualifications in mind: Are single people more altruistic and caring? Do people become more focused on just their own spouse or nuclear family once they get married? There is some support for the latter. In a study that followed people over time as they went from being single to being married, they became more insular after they married. They maintained less contact with their parents and friends than they had when they were single.
Another explanation may be that people believe the stereotypes saying that single people don’t have a life, and then they expect single people to be able to step in and be there for their parents, even though it is more perilous for a person relying on just their own salary to take time off from work than it is for someone who may have a partner’s income to help them get by.
One of the people I interviewed for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century was Robert Jones. He has always been single, and had siblings who married. At a point in his life when he was deciding whether to return to live in the town where he grew up, he told me, “You know, my mother was getting older then, and at some point, I knew I was going to have to be the one.” He went home. Robert expressed no resentment. He seemed to have a wonderfully loving relationship with his mother.
I wonder, though, about other single people who have married siblings. Do most of them help their parents more because they want to or because they are expected to – or perhaps a bit of both?
Laditka, James N., & Laditka, Sarah B. (2001). Adult children helping older parents: Variations in likelihood and hours by gender, race, and family role. Research on Aging, 23, 429-256.