By Emma Young
What happens if you grow up with a grandparent living in your home? Does the prolonged contact counter prejudices, biases and stereotypes of the elderly? Or might it instead encourage negative perceptions of older people as being slow, angry or sickly, for example?
These are important questions, partly because in some countries, though not all, an increasing number of elderly people are moving in with family members. In the US, for example, 15% of older adults are now living in someone else’s household, up from 7% in 1995.
Now a new paper, published in Social Psychology, by Brian T Smith and Kelly Charlton at the University of North Carolina, suggests that this trend could be causing undesirable outcomes: people in the study who had grown up with an elderly person had significantly lower opinions of the elderly than those who had not. However, these respondents did at least report less anxiety around their own ageing process.
Smith and Charlton studied 309 Americans, all recruited online. Of these, 194 reported growing up with an older adult — and 80 of these people said that the older adult in their home had suffered from a serious illness.
All the participants completed a series of surveys that explored, among other things, their current levels of contact with elderly people, the positivity (or otherwise) of this contact, their general attitudes towards elderly people, and also their anxieties about growing old themselves.
The analysis revealed that people who’d grown up with elderly people had lower opinions of older adults (this was especially true of those who’d grown up with an older adult who had been sick). The analysis also revealed that people in this group had greater levels of current anxiety about interacting with older adults. Overall, “our findings indicate that even years after a young adult has presumably moved out of the home, growing up in that home with an older adult had a significant negative effect on opinions of the elderly,” the researchers write.
This finding contrasts with other work suggesting that contact with ‘out’-groups (such as minority groups) can counter prejudices. However, the researchers did observe that participants who had grown up with an older adult and who then managed to maintain frequent contact with elderly people did have more positive current opinions of older adults. Among this group, the older adult who’d lived at home was less likely to have suffered from an illness.
Living with someone with a mental or physical illness can cause chronic strain and impact the health of others in the house, the researchers note. It often means that everyone in the house becomes a caregiver and, as the pair writes, “the effects of being a caregiver are generally negative, associated with severe negative and physical outcomes”.
Given all this, it’s surprising that people who’d grown up with an elderly person also reported being less anxious about their own ageing. But the researchers suspect cognitive dissonance could be at work here: “Younger adults who are faced with the realities of ageing (even if the older adult in their life is not seriously ill) may feel threatened by this. To reduce their discomfort at the idea of becoming older, they may tell themselves that their aging outcomes will be different.”
There are various limitations to the study. All the participants were American, so whether the same results would apply elsewhere is not clear. Also, the researchers didn’t ask the participants directly about their opinions of the older adult that they grew up with.
Still, the work does suggest that if a grandparent — especially a sick one — moves in to a family home, this will not necessarily improve the attitudes of children in the house towards older people. Parents may need to consider the quality of the relationship their children have with older people in their lives, and do whatever they can to encourage a positive relationship — especially if a grandparent is sick.