Claims by Elderly Parents for Loss of Caregiving by Adult Children

by Hugh P. Finnigan

This article first appeared in the autumn 2005 issue of the Expert Witness.

Advancements in medical technology have prolonged the lives of individuals and dramatically increased their costs of care. As a result, many adult children accept at least some responsibility in the provision of such care to their aging parents. This leads to a possible claim by elderly parents for the loss of caregiving services, if an adult child is seriously injured or killed.

Before such a claim can be made, however, some determination must be made of the probability that an adult child will offer such care, especially if the parent had not been in need of assistance before the child was injured. In this article I shall review some recent American research that examines the factors that determine whether an adult child will care for an elderly parent.

In an early study, Stone, Cafferata, and Sangl (1987) examined 1982 data to develop a profile of caregivers by their relationship to the care recipient. The researchers found that the average age of these caregivers was 57.3. Moreover, one-third of these caregivers were still employed and having to make adjustments to their work schedules. One-third of the caretaker’s families were near or below the poverty line. Finally, one-third of the care providers were themselves in only fair to poor health.

Several researchers have examined opportunity cost as a possible motivation. That is, children might find that the expense of caring for their elderly parents exceeds what they themselves could earn in the workplace. Thus, they might be economically better off to care for their parents in lieu of working a traditional job. Supporting this theory, researchers have found that adult women in particular tend to reduce their hours of paid work (or leave the labour force altogether) to provide care for their parents. This finding is consistent with the persistent wage differentials found between women and men. If women tend to earn less than men, on average, they face a lower opportunity cost when deciding to care for their parents.

It has also been argued that children might feel differently towards their parents, depending on the latter’s marital status. Pezzin and Schone (1999), for example, found that divorced men were less likely to receive care or financial assistance from their children than were divorced women. Moreover, if the divorced father does receive care the number of hours is often lower than that received by mothers or widowed fathers. These findings were later confirmed by Pelkowski (2005).

Pelkowski also found a number of other determinants that had not been measured by other researchers. Most importantly, she found that if the children lived within close proximity (within 10 miles) to their parents there was a far greater chance they would provide care. Also, males with living sisters tended to have a low propensity to provide assistance to their parents. Finally, Polkowski is able to answer a question posed earlier by Folbre and Nelson (2000): in her survey the expectation of a bequest was found not to be an important determinant of a child’s willingness to provide care to an elderly parent.


Levit, Katharine R.; Cowen, Cathy A.; Lazenby, Helen C.; McDonnell, Patricia A.; Sensenig, Arthur L.; Stiller, Jean M. and Won, Darlene K. “National Health Spending Trends, 1960-1993.” Health Affairs, Winter 1994, 13(5), pp. 14-31.

Nancy Folbre & Julie A. Nelson, 2000. “For Love or Money-Or Both?,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 14(4), pages 123-140.

Pelkowski, Jodi Messer, 2005. “Adult Children’s Propensity to Care for an Elderly Parent: Does the Marital Status of the Parent Matter? The Journal of Economics, 31(1), pp.17-38.

Pezzin, Liliana E. and Schone, Barbara Steinberg. “Parental Marital Disruption and Intergenerational Transfers: An Analysis of Lone Elderly Parents and Their Children.” Demography, August 1999, 36(3), pp. 287-97.

Stone, Robyn I.; Cafferta, Gail L. and Sangl, Judith A. “Caregivers of the Frail Elderly: A National Profile.” The Gerontologist, October 1987, 27(5), pp.616-626.


From 2003 through 2005, Hugh Finnigan was a consulting economist at Economica, with a Master of Arts degree from the University of Calgary.