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Is Help Always Helpful?

Receiving Instrumental Support in Late Parent-Child Relationships and Parental Depression
Copyright: eternalcreative

Depression is a major public health problem and the most frequent cause of emotional suffering in later life, which significantly decreases the quality of life of older adults. Social support from family members, and especially children, is of key importance for mental health and well-being. In this study, Maja Djundeva, Melinda Mills, Rafael Wittek and Nardi Steverink explore the role of gender, functional limitations, and social interaction in the association between instrumental support from adult children and parental depression.

Instrumental support is defined as helping with home repairs, transportation, shopping, household chores as well as help with financial and legal matters. The researchers analyzed a sample of 6,268 parents over the age of 65 who have nonresident children from the first wave of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE 2004).

Depressive mood is measured using the EURO-D scale, which was constructed by harmonising five depression measures into a 12-item scale including depression, pessimism, suicidality, guilt, sleep, interest, irritability, appetite, fatigue, concentration, enjoyment, and tearfulness. Importantly, this study uses a cross-sectional design, which does not allow to discern the causal relationship between instrumental support and depression.


Different groups, different needs

The results show that more frequent instrumental support is associated with an increase in the odds of depressive mood. However the relationship is not linear: Parents with severe limitations who receive either sporadic or daily (frequent) support tend to be less depressed than parents with the same level of limitations who receive no support. The opposite trend appears for parents with medium physical limitations: Parents who receive sporadic or daily support tend to be more depressed than those receiving weekly support. So for those with medium physical limitations, both too little or too frequent support is associated with higher depression.

Exploring gender differences, the study shows that for women instrumental support is less strongly associated with depressive mood than for men. Only receiving daily support is associated with a higher depressive mood for women whereas for men, receiving any support regardless of the intensity is related to higher depressive mood. Women who receive weekly support face lower odds of being in a depressive mood than men who do not receive support.


No significant differences

The authors also compared parents who receive different levels of instrumental support and have different levels of frequency of contact with their children. Surprisingly, they found no significant differences. Parents receiving sporadic instrumental support who contact their children once a week or less than once a week do not face different odds of being depressed compared with parents who have daily contact.

According to the study the relationship between varying intensity of instrumental support and depression is stable across different European contexts. This suggests that individual characteristics still explain most of the variance in depressive mood.

To conclude, it is suggested that the heterogeneity in physical needs and resources of older individuals must be taken into account when assessing the effects of instrumental support on mental health problems like depression.


*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116  for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties.
FamiliesAndSocieties ( has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Daniela Vono de Vilhena / Sigrun Matthiesen