Motivation for Money and Care that Adult Children Provide for Parents: Evidence from “Point-Blank” Survey Questions

Donald Cox Beth J. Soldo



When adult children provide care for their aging parents, they often do so at great expense to themselves incurring psychic, monetary, emotional, and even physical costs, in conjunction with care that is labor intensive and, at the extreme, unrelenting. While the nature of parent care and the profile of care giving children are well described in the literatures of the social sciences, we still lack insight into why adult children undertake parent care without compensation or compulsion. In this paper, we adopt a novel, direct question approach using newly available data from a special module fielded in the 2000 Health and Retirement Study that included questions on motivations for, and concerns with, the provision of familial assistance. Transfers are not always provided free of pressure from other family members, for example, and familial norms of obligations and traditions appear to matter for many respondents. These findings suggest that the standard set of economic considerations—utility interdependence, budget constraints, exchange, and the like—are insufficient for a complete understanding of private transfer behavior. Though one must always be skeptical about reading too much into what people say about why they do the things they do (or think they will do) we nonetheless conclude that “point-blank” questions offer, at the very least, a worthwhile complement to the more conventional methods for unraveling motivations for private, intergenerational transfers.