Many studies conducted over the last 20 years demonstrate the importance of adult parent/child relationships on the health and well-being of parents in later life. The interpretation of these findings is limited by their cross-sectional design. To contextualize our understanding of the link between adult parent/child relationships and health, researchers from Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis conducted a longitudinal study to improve our understanding of how earlier life experiences – specifically family functioning at parents’ midlife – might impact health in late life.
Over a 25-year span Drs. Linda Bell and David Bell followed a group of families who had an adolescent daughter in the mid-1970s. Two waves of data were collected. In the first wave (1975-1976), the researchers conducted structured home interviews with 99 intact, middle-class families measuring parent ego development, parent education, and midlife/adolescent family system functioning. In Wave 2 (1998-2003) telephone interviews were conducted with 85 of the same families to measure the quality of adult parent/child relationships, frequency of contact between parents and adult children, and parents’ psychological well-being and physical health.
Based on their results, the researchers argue that family functioning at midlife affects adult parent-child relationships, which in turn influence elderly parents’ well-being and health. Specifically, the researchers discovered that the midlife family system fully mediated the effect of parent resources (education and ego development) on their adult parent/child relationships. Thus, family system functioning serves as the mechanism through which parent resources at midlife impact adult parent/child relationships in later life.
Some of the Bells’ additional analyses with these data ran contradictory to common understanding about the relationships between marriage and health and the impact poor health can have on adult parent/child relationships. Utilizing data collected during Wave 2, the Bells found that poor health among fathers in late life was related to increased adult parent/child relationship quality. This finding contradicts those of previous researchers, who found that declining parental health negatively impacts adult parent/child relationships. The Bells also found that being married had a negative impact on women’s health and well-being. This finding is surprising considering the glut of research that has been recently conducted linking marriage to better health for both men and women. The researchers argue that their data represented men and women from a cohort in which divorce was “not an option.” This expectation may have encouraged many women during this era to stay in unhappy marriages, thus negatively impacting their health and well-being in later life.