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Study: The Power of a Son’s Desire to Give Back


They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind – in those whom they have blessed, they live again. – Maya Angelou

Sons are motivated to care for their ailing parents by strong emotional bonds and the desire to give back, a new study has found.

Researchers interviewed 48 sons providing care to an aging parent and 24 of their spouses. The men lived in and around Hamilton and London in Ontario, Canada. The first group was made up of 38 married sons. Most were working full-time or retired.

The second group consisted of 10 bachelors, who were generally younger than their married counterparts. Most were working part-time or retired. Members of this group were far more likely to be living with the ailing parent.

The research was conducted by Dr. Lori Campbell from the department of sociology and health, aging and society at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Campbell’s study was published in the Canadian Journal on Aging (Vol. 29, No. 1, 2010).

Because it’s in the family

When study participants were asked why they provided filial care, most sons replied out of a sense of commitment to the family, particularly to a parent.

For example, many sons recalled how a parent had supported them through good and bad times when they were growing up. As one son put it:

I owe her because she spent a lot of years bringing me up, but I wasn’t all that great as a kid. She did a lot for me and I just figure, at this time in her life, that she needs me there and I am dedicated. I owe her and it’s time to pay her back.

As well, most sons said they cared for their parent out of an emotional bond that made them want to offer to help, rather than a sense of obligation.

One unmarried son explained:

I make a lot of sacrifices on my own. I put him first before anything else. I believe he’s my responsibility. The way I look at it is that my time will come later, when he passes away. Then, that’s for me. Then, I can do what I want.

Surprisingly perhaps, the study revealed some single men had always felt they would put aside their lives to care for their parent when the time came.

However, neither single nor married sons felt siblings should be "obligated" to care for a parent. They felt children should want to provide care.

Closer to the heart

The study found that many participants shared close emotional ties with their parent from their earliest years. In fact, this closeness was an influential factor in the men’s decision to offer assistance.

One participant, an only child, described his feelings this way:

We’ve always been very close. My mom passed away in 1982 and it was just him and [me] left. I’m looking after him 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it gets a little stressful sometimes. But, our relationship is so close. That’s why I do it.

However, for some men, caregiving helped warm up previously distant relationships.

As one son explained:

I was never really close to my dad in the early years. I’ve become closer to him now in the last little while just because we spend more time together. He enjoys the relationship [we] have as much as I do.

Most significantly, the study revealed all the sons maintained or increased closeness with their parent throughout the caregiving experience.

Mixture of emotions

According to the study, the men experienced a jumble of emotions – love, compassion, responsibility, frustration and guilt – in carrying out their caregiving role.

One son described how he coped this way:

Everything is all mixed together. You feel everything. You just put one foot in front of the other and whatever hits you hits you. If you want to sit down and cry then you sit down and cry, and then you kind of carry on.

Not surprisingly, the men found the experience particularly bleak when they had to help move their parent into a care facility: "In some ways, it sort of eases the pressure, but again, there’s still a great deal of guilt," one son said. "You always have the feeling, am I doing enough. It’s such a difficult thing. It’s almost like grieving."

Most of the sons felt it was important to visit their parent in the home frequently – at least three times a week – to provide emotional support and monitor their care.

Gradual process

The study found most participants had time to "grow" into their caregiving role. In the early stages, they did yard work, home maintenance and provided transportation or financial advice.

Over time, the men took on increasing care for their parent, including personal care tasks.

As one son explained:

I guess part of this is you grow into the care. Initially, it was more mechanical things that I was doing, but in more recent months, the type of care has changed and I’m doing more personal care. I initially found it very difficult. I think I am much more comfortable with them now. I really had to sort of kick myself to get my mind in gear to do it.

Growing through caregiving

When asked whether they felt they had changed as a person because of their involvement in care, all the men replied the experience had changed them.

Many sons said they had become more caring and compassionate. Some said they had become more patient, more resilient or more resourceful.

When the men were asked to describe other ways they had changed, some sons said the experience helped them prioritize what was important in their own lives. One son replied it helped him understand what other people go through. Another son said that looking after his father helped him appreciate the caring dimension of his own being:

I always thought of myself as being a caring person, but helping people in less personal ways. So when things start to get personal and intimate, I tend to get cold feet. But I haven’t been able to that with Dad. I have had to jump right in. This has helped me get some new appreciation for that part of me.

However, the changes were not all positive.

As one bachelor explained:

I used to be very outgoing, very happy go lucky, you know. Not a lot of things used to bother me. Now I find myself, some days, if I have a bad day, sort of short with people, sort of sad, and you know, sort of edgy, that’s in a negative way. But in a positive light, it’s opened my eyes that there are people that need help.

Spousal support

The study found wives played a supporting role:

  • they assisted their husbands by helping with the shopping, laundry, meal preparation or by accompanying their husbands during visits to parents; and
  • they provided emotional support. For example, one woman spoke about "picking up the slack" at home so her husband could assist his father.

Sons as caregivers

Unmarried sons tended to make caregiving the central element in their lives, according to the study. Many of the men found the experience emotional and stressful. Yet some unmarried sons reported they got more satisfaction from being a caregiver than did from their previous jobs: care giving gave their lives "purpose".

Caregiving was more limited for married sons. The men had to balance their involvement with their work and family responsibilities. Even so, these sons felt providing care for their parent was important and the right thing to do.