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Although the term generation can be used to describe people who were born during a specific time period, here, the term refers to relatives who are on the same rang of the family ladder. Parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, aunts and nephews, parents-in-law, and children-in-law are separate generations; sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, and first cousins are not. Older adults possess an array of intergenerational ties. Sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, great-grandchildren, stepchildren, and partners and former partners of offspring may play an important role in an older adult's life.
Certain relationships, however, lend themselves more readily to intimacy. Intergenerational ties vary based on the number of links between an older adult and a relative. A relationship with a child involves a single or direct link, whereas a relationship with a niece does not. The older adult is linked to a niece through a sibling, to a daughter-in-law through a son, and so forth. Relationships that are indirectly linked implicitly involve a third person and tend to be less insular than relationships that are directly linked. Of course, there is a degree of individual preference in the matter; one older adult may share a deep bond with a nephew, another may share an intimate tie with a grandchild. For a variety of reasons, however, the parent-child relationship tends to provide more opportunities for intimacy than other intergenerational ties.
Most intergenerational relationships are offshoots of the parent-child relationship in some manner. For example, a grandchild's parent influences the tie to the grandparent (Troll, 1985; Thompson and Walker, 1987; Fingerman, 2000b). Further, parent-child ties have a longer history than other intergenerational ties, and this history contributes to their sense of closeness in late life. Moreover, offspring feel a sense of obligation to care for aging parents that may not be felt by grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or in-laws (Silverstein, Parrott, and Bengtson, 1995). These qualities of the parent-child tie make it a unique resource for intimacy in older adults' lives.
It is not necessary for the elderly parent to be biologically related to the "child" to experience a sense of kinship and intimacy. A stepchild whose parent remained in early life may view the stepparent as mother or father by the time that person has reached old age; the "step" aspect to the relationship is less meaningful after forty years than it was after four months. Traditionally, African American older adults often treat fictive kin as their own offspring. Nieces, nephews, or unrelated younger adults from a church or community may serve in the role of a grown child (Burton, 1995; Johnson, 1995, 1999). By contrast, grown children may feel little connection to a stepparent who married their widowed parent late in life (Ganong and Coleman, 1999). In late life, intimacy may exist between individuals who define themselves as parent and offspring, regardless of "objective" features of this tie. It should be noted, however, that a majority of older adults in America today do have at least one biological child. Approximately 85 percent of European Americans over the age of 60 have at least one living child; these rates are somewhat lower for African Americans and higher for Hispanic Americans (Administration on Aging, 2000).
Characteristics of Intimacy
Several traditional features of intimacy, such as mutuality and validation of the self, take a different form in the parent-child tie than in other social ties. Other characteristics of intimate tics, a merging of identities and sexual contact, for example, are absent in the intimate tic between aging parent and adult offspring (Miller and Lefcourt, 1982; Moss and Schwebel, 1993). Intimacy between aging parents and grown children is defined by two characteristics: recognition of the other person as an individual with strengths and weaknesses, and a deep concern for the other party's well-being. These characteristics shape other features of this particular intergenerational intimacy.
Self-disclosure is often viewed as a means of enhancing intimacy. Unlike romantic partners who share their personal problems to build intimacy (Pasch and Bradbury, 1998), parents and children who experience intimacy in late life have a clear sense of what is appropriate to disclose and what is not. Intimacy involves parents' and children's respect for the other's investment in them; parents recognize that their offspring care and are concerned for them, offspring recognize that their parents deserve to be free of worry. Their disclosures are shaped by this recognition. This is not to say that intimacy precludes discussion between parents and children in old age. Parents enjoy hearing about their offspring's day-to-day affairs and feel included in their lives through stories about work and family. Offspring enjoy hearing about their parents' earlier years and experience their own history through these stories (Fingerman, 2000a). Indeed, when parents or children fail to talk about their daily life with the other party, the other party may feel excluded (Fingerman, in press). Rather, parents and offspring in intimate relationships demarcate boundaries around what they disclose out of respect for the other party.
Self-validation has also received attention as a key aspect of intimacy (Reis and Shaver, 1988). This aspect of intimacy between parents and children in late life further reflects the developmental history of the parent-offspring tie. In early life, the relationship between parent and infant involves a complete symbiosis, a state of oneness. Throughout childhood and adolescence, the child moves toward autonomy and individuation (Erikson, 1950). Yet, in earls, adulthood, parents remain heavily invested in their offspring's behavior and sec the offspring's achievements as a reflection on their own abilities as parents (Ryff et al., 1994; Fingerman, 2000a). When offspring are in their 30s, however, they may achieve "filial maturity," an acceptance of their parents' weaknesses and foibles (Blenkner, 1963; Birditt et al., 2000). Likewise, parents may achieve an increased sense of offspring as full-fledged adults (Nydegger, 1991). As a result, parents and children are able to feel close in ways that were not previously available in their relationship. The early vestige of "oneness" in the relationship negates the need for a deep sense of intertwined lives as part of the intimacy of late life. Whereas romantic partners perceive relationship growth through an increasing sense that their identifies are merging, parents and adult offspring perceive relationship growth through an increasing sense that each possesses an independent identity. Parents experience intimacy from the sense that their offspring are a part of themselves that will outlive them. The independence of the offspring enhances this perspective. Likewise, offspring view the parent as an aspect of themselves that preceded them. Their increased sense of the parent as an autonomous being enhances this perspective. Intimacy between parents and offspring in late life includes a sense of self-validation, steeped in a sense of identity over time.
The definition of "mutuality" is also less rigid in the intimate tie between parent and child in late life than in other social tics. Meeting another party's needs can contribute as much to intimacy as feeling that one's own needs are met (Reis and Shaver, 1998). By late life, parents and offspring alike derive a sense of intimacy from helping the other party (Fingerman, 2000a). A sense of equity is derived from a lifelong commitment rather than immediate reciprocity. As mentioned previously, some older adults develop ties to younger adults who act like offspring, but these relationships lack the history associated with parent-child ties. For these relationships to acquire intimacy akin to that found between parents and children, they must be free of a balance sheet of exchanges. The generosity of giving between parent and child in late-life intimacy stems from a sense that each party deserves to be helped. When parents are relatively healthy, they are as likely to assist their children with day-to-day tasks as they are to receive assistance.
At the end of life, aging parents may incur physical declines that shift the balance of exchanges in this tie. Offspring who care for their aging parent can find this experience moving and enriching (Walker et al., 1989) or they can find it stressful (Zarit, Reever, and Bach-Peterson, 1980). Although physical contact is often considered a key element of intimacy (Register and Henley, 1992; Moss and Schwebel, 1993), it is not clear that physical contact involved in bathing, feeding, or helping an aging parent use the toilet enhances intimacy. Rather, daily care may undermine the mutual recognition of the other as an independent adult. The parent's reactions to the child's caregiving efforts have not been well investigated. Parents who receive this care with dignity may experience an increased sense of closeness from their children's ministries. This issue warrants further examination.
In summary, the characteristics of intimate ties between parents and offspring in late life are different from the characteristics of other intimate ties. This distinction reflects shifts the parties experience as they grow older. In early adulthood, individuals kindle intimacy through personal disclosures of their fantasies, anxieties, and emotions (Reis and Shaver, 1988; Register and Henley, 1992). By late life, when parents are elderly and offspring are middle-aged, the need to define oneself in intimate ties is no longer prominent. Instead, intimacy involves recognition of the other party as a full-fledged adult like oneself and is shaped by concern for one another. This intimacy can be more rewarding than the intensity of emotion parents and offspring have experienced in early life. In late life, intimacy feels more voluntary, more reciprocal, more mutual, and more controllable than the closeness that is demanded when offspring are young.
Across the lifespan, parents tend to hold a more positive view of the parent-child tie than do their offspring (Fingerman, 1995). Parents have invested a great deal in their offspring and are biased toward viewing these offspring in favorable terms. By contrast, offspring are concerned with their own affairs and with ties to their own children and spouses; their parents may not be as central in their lives. Given these intergenerational differences, intimacy in this tie is not a reciprocal experience at an absolute level, but rather involves a level of closeness that each party finds acceptable.
Factors Influencing Intimacy
Further, the parent's marital status may contribute to the quality of the relationship with offspring. Single older parents, particularly widowed women, turn to a child for companionship, emotional support, and a closeness that the child may or may not reciprocate (Morgan, 1989; Fingerman, in press). As will be discussed, offspring have their own daily concerns and competing demands that may render a parent's desire for closeness burdensome. A parent's unmarried status can allow increased closeness, but can also create conditions that offspring resent. It is unclear whether the offspring's marital status contributes to the level of intimacy between parents and offspring in late life (Fischer, 1986; Suitor and Pillemer, 1999; Fingerman, 2000a). As offspring grow older, they may develop a more sophisticated relationship with their parents, regardless of whether they themselves marry. Indeed, an offspring's gay partnership or a particularly close friendship may prompt the type of maturation that encourages recognition of the parent as an individual.
Surprisingly, geographic distance does not seem to determine whether a parent has an intimate tic with a grown child (Rossi and Rossi, 1990). In fact, 70 percent to 80 percent of older adults have at least one adult child who lives within an hour's drive, and they see such offspring about once a week (Shams, 1980; Lin and Rogerson, 1995). Therefore, having a child in close proximity is so common that it cannot explain why one older adult has an intimate relationship with a child and another does not.
However, systematic differences do exist with regard to the type of offspring who remain near their parents. About a third of offspring live within an hour's drive of parents. Offspring who move away from parents tend to have more education than offspring who remain nearby and tend to move for career reasons (Booth et al., 1991; Climo, 1992; Sweet, Bumpass, and Vaughn, 1988). Contact is necessary for intimate ties rather than proximity per sc. Technological advances of the past 50 years such as cheaper long-distance telephone rates, increased air travel, and electronic mail allow frequent contact between parents and offspring who reside at a distance. Although parents and offspring who reside at a distance cannot actively participate in one another's day-to-day lives, they may still experience a sense of intimacy.
It would be inappropriate to discuss parent-child ties in adulthood without considering culture and ethnicity. Parents' and children's sense of their relationship reflects their expectations, their sense of obligation, and their beliefs about how this relationship fits into their lives. These factors are shaped by culture. For example, parents and grown offspring whose cultural beliefs support involvement in one another's daily lives arc likely to build intimacy by disclosing to one another different types of information compared to parents and offspring in the dominant American culture, which does not support such involvement. Intimacy itself needs to be considered from the perspective of the individuals involved in the tie.
Of course, hating a grown child is an obvious precursor to this form of intimacy in late life. Adults find themselves childless in late life for three reasons: They never had children, their children have died, or they are estranged from their children. Rates of childlessness have varied at different historical periods. In 1990, some 22 percent of adults over age 85 (who were of childbearing age during the Great Depression) reported never having had a child, compared to 8 percent of adults in their 60s (who were of childbearing age during the baby boom) (Himes, 1992). Over the years, adults who have no children of their own may establish strong ties to substitute kin such as a niece or nephew (Connidis and Davies, 1992; Koropeckyj-Cox, 1998). Some older adults, particularly those over age 85, may have outlived their children (Johnson and Barer, 1997). This group must strengthen other intergenerational ties at a stage of life when their energy and resources are waning; they may find this task daunting. Finally, although most older adults describe positive relationships with their offspring (Rossi and Rossi, 1990), a small number of them feel estranged from their grown children. For example, divorced fathers may find themselves distanced from their offspring in late life (Webster and Herzog, 1995). Such older adults may be in particular need of counseling.
Implications for Practice
The two key features of the parent-child relationship that must be met for the parties to reap the rewards of intimacy in late life--recognition of the other party as an adult like oneself, and mutual concern for the other party's well-being--have been described. The ability to distance oneself and to accept the other party's limitations is, as has been said, a necessary precursor to true intimacy in this tie. Clinicians should work with aging parents and offspring to achieve these abilities.
Parents should be encouraged to seek out same-aged peers to discuss their health problems or their adjustment to widowhood. Offspring can offer an older parent validation of the past and concern about the future, but may not understand present life circumstances.
Clinicians also need to recognize that the offspring's view of the relationship is not the "objective" view. Although offspring can achieve a sense of their parents as individuals by midlife, they also remain in the child role in the relationship. Offspring are particularly sensitive to the new demands they face (Fingerman, 1997). For example, many offspring are frustrated by their parents' failure to care for themselves adequately (Fingerman, 1996). If offspring can be assisted to empathize with their parents' emotional weaknesses, they may gain greater insights into the embarrassment a mother feels over using an oxygen tank in public or the anxiety a father experiences with regard to a medical test. This empathy can facilitate intimacy in the tie.
The greatest barriers to intergenerational intimacy involve situations in which the parties feel criticized or judged by the other. In early life, parents are charged with the task of socializing their children with regard to the rules of the larger culture. If parents persist in trying to change their offspring in adulthood, however, offspring may push them away (Fingerman, 1996). Likewise, if offspring depend on their parents for emotional and instrumental help at a time when the parents wish to be freed of these demands, their relationships suffer (Cohler, 1983). Culture shapes parents' and offspring's acceptance of the other's advice or demands. The issue is not one of absolute levels, but of achieving a distance that is comfortable for both parties, a distance that allows each party to care about the other in a genuine manner. Clinicians need to be sensitive to variation in acceptable distance in this tie.
Finally, clinicians may work with older adults who cannot achieve intimacy in their ties with offspring because their offspring are not available. Offspring who are drug-addicted or in jail, for example, or who have estranged themselves present challenges for their parents. At the end of life, it is unlikely that such parents and children will achieve the type of intimacy that involves mutual recognition and mutual concern. Indeed, older adults who harbor deep concerns about their children may find these concerns detrimental to well-being, rather than beneficial. In these cases, ties to substitute kin or intimacy in other relationships should be encouraged.
In summary, as parents and offspring grow older, their ability to care for the other party as an individual facilitates intimacy in their ties. Parents and offspring who experience an intimate tie have a strong sense of the other's limitations and accept the other party's faults without taking these faults personally (Fingerman, 1996). Further, both parties share a genuine concern for the other party's well-being. The intimacy parents and offspring share in late life does not involve the close sense of oneness they could derive from a romantic partner, but it includes other beneficial features.
Reflection Exercise #5
Bogdan, I., Turliuc, M. N., & Candel, O. S. (2022). Transition to Parenthood and Marital Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 901362. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.901362