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Older moms feel depressed when any of their kids struggle

Karl Pillemer

The field of social science overflows with research about the heavy burdens adult children shoulder when their older parents become frail or disabled.

But a growing body of literature suggests that the parent-child relationship is a two-way street throughout life, with adult children having a profound effect on their parents’ psychological well-being.

A new study adds to that research, suggesting that older mothers are more prone to depression if their adult children struggle with serious problems such as financial difficulties or alcohol or drug abuse.

“What surprised me in this study was the degree to which reports of children’s problems was strongly correlated with depressive symptoms,” said coauthor Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development and a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. The study appeared in Research on Aging.

The lifelong bonds of attachment are so powerful that, even among mothers in their late 70s and 80s, problems in their children’s lives profoundly affect their mental health, Pillemer said. “In studies, I have interviewed 100-year-olds who are still worried about their 78-year-old children. This is a very important contributor to older parents’ health.”

Pillemer and his coauthors – J. Jill Suitor of Purdue University; Catherine Riffin, Ph.D. ’15; and Megan Gilligan of Iowa State University – analyzed data from interviews with 352 older women who each had at least two adult children.

The mothers reported whether they experienced symptoms of depression and identified which adult child she felt the most emotionally close to and which she would prefer to receive help from if she became ill or disabled. The moms also indicated whether any of their children dealt with serious problems such as an injury, trouble with the law or difficulties with marriage or at work.

The researchers had expected that the mothers would be more depressed if the adult child they felt closest to or expected help from struggled with serious issues, Pillemer said.

The findings may reassure adult children who have felt discomfort due to parental favoritism, Pillemer said. “If mom is more emotionally close to one child or another, she is also deeply concerned about what happens to all of her offspring,” he said.

The study also has clinical implications, Pillemer said, because older adults, who generally were raised to keep quiet about family matters, may not spontaneously offer information about their children’s struggles. And people sometimes experience their children not doing well as embarrassing or shameful, he said.

So, Pillemer encourages clinicians to ask older people showing signs of depression whether they are worried about any of their children. “Certainly if an older person mentions it, it’s worth following up,” he said.

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