Patterns of Multigenerational Caregiving across Europe

Rachel Margolis, University of Western Ontario
Sarah E. Patterson, University of Western Ontario

Multigenerational caregiving, the transfer of resources (time or money) from one family member to multiple other family members, is a pressing social issue worldwide. Patterns of caregiving across generations depend on population aging, the age pattern of disability, kin availability, labour force participation and preferences about caregiving. Who is available to care for family members, who does the caregiving across generations, and what policy and demographic characteristics are associated with these patterns are important areas for understanding older adult well-being and family dynamics. We use the General Social Survey for Canada and the Gender and Generations Survey for European countries to examine multigenerational caregiving across Canada and Europe. We examine different explanations for why patterns of caregiving vary across contexts, including demographic and policy related explanations.


Multigenerational caregiving, the transfer of resources (time or money) from one family member to multiple other family members, is an important issue across Europe and North America (Dykstra and Hagestad 2016; Margolis and Wright 2016; Uhlenberg 1996). Although caregiving can have positive effects on the receiver and giver (Cohen, Colantonio, and Vernich 2002; Lin, Fee, and Wu 2012), caregiving can also have negative implications for the life of the caregiver in ways that later affect their own needs and resources. These negative outcomes can include depression and emotional strain (Brody et al. 1987; Fast, Williamson, and Keating 1999; Wolf, Raissian, and Grundy 2015), strain on ability to work or forcing an exit from the labor force (Fast et al. 1999; Kossek, Colquitt, and Noe 2001; Kotsadam 2012; Pavalko and Artis 1997), and reduced savings and delayed retirement (Meyer 1990; Meyer and Herd 2007), all of which have the potential to increase intergenerational inequality and insecurity.

The need for eldercare is increasing due to population aging and large cohorts of older adults moving into retirement ages (Wolinsky et al. 2011). Increases in the proportion of the world population over 65 increases dependency on working age citizens, which most European countries and Canada are experiencing (The World Bank 2016). However, the demography of families is also changing, potentially decreasing the number of potential caregivers (Dykstra 2010; Margolis and Wright 2016). Low fertility decreases the number of children available to provide care (Glenn 2010). Moreover, fertility postponement may mean that adults are providing intensive care to a younger generation, at the same time that elderly parents need help. The timing of this overlap of multigenerational caregiving can have important implications for the middle generation’s ability to save or build human capital. In addition, it may be the grandparent generation that is doing multigenerational caregiving, if elderly parents are still alive, and resources are also being transferred to adult children or even grandchildren (Margolis and Wright 2016). Last, women are the most likely to care within families (Folbre 2002; Spillman and Pezzin 2000), but increases in female labor force participation overall and at older ages also serve to decrease the availability of women to provide elder care (Pavalko 2011; Pavalko and Wolfe 2015).

Our study compares multigenerational caregiving across Europe and Canada – how prevalent it is, and when in life it occurs. We use the Gender and Generations Survey (Waves 1 and 2) to study patterns across Europe, and the General Social Survey (2012) for Canada. Our study has three aims. First, we document patterns of multigenerational caregiving, including three types of transfers: time (helping with childcare; giving regular help with personal care), financial help (giving money to those outside the household), and emotional help (listening to another person). Second, we establish to what extent differences in kin availability across countries explains variation in these caregiving patterns by country. Finally, we test whether policy and contextual differences across countries help explain patterns of multigenerational caregiving. More specifically, we investigate the ways in which demographic characteristics and policies of these countries influence the caregiving patterns and discuss the implications for family dynamics and older adult well-being.


Multigenerational caregiving can occur in multiple directions and include different types of transfers. Caregiving can be downward, with parents or grandparents caring for the generations below them, horizontal, with spouses taking care of spouses or siblings caring for siblings, or upward, with children caring for their parents or grandparents (Dykstra 2010). The resources transferred within these caregiving relationships are also diverse. Categories of exchanges include functional, i.e. time or money, and affective ties, i.e. emotional exchanges (Bengston 2001; Bengtson and Roberts 1991; Sarkisian and Gerstel 2004). We measure three types of caregiving, two functional and one affective. First, we measure time given to other family members, a functional exchange. This includes traditional forms of care, like caring for children or giving help with personal care. Second, we measure transfers of money from one family member to others across generations; this is our second type of functional transfer. Third, our measure of affective transfers, gauges exchanges of emotional help – here, listening to others. Studies on these types of multigenerational caregiving find differences between and within different countries (Dykstra 2010; Sarkisian and Gerstel 2004). For instance, although the overall proportion of adults providing personal care for upward generations is small, the likelihood of providing personal care is higher in East European countries compared to Western European countries (Dykstra 2010). For emotional exchanges, Germans and Romanians are the least likely to engage in these exchanges with parents compared to the French or Russians, for instance (Dykstra 2010).

Presented in Session 1126: Ageing and Intergenerational Relations