/ The Four Rs of Intergenerational Relationships: Implications for Practice


The "Four Rs" of respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and resiliency that generally characterize intergenerational relationships are discussed and illustrated. Implications of these qualities for support and service provision are described from social systems and continuity perspectives. Illustrations are given of how intergenerational relationships can be enhanced through understanding of and building upon the "Four Rs".

Key Words: Intergenerational relationships, respect, responsibility, reciprocity, resiliency, professional practice

    1. Timothy Brubaker is Professor, Child and Family Studies, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, 45046.return to text

    2. Ellie Brubaker is Professor, Child and Family Studies, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, 45046.return to text

    Within U. S. families, intergenerational relationships are thriving. Contrary to the belief that the nuclear family is most important and leads to isolation from other family units within a kinship network, intergenerational relationships are alive and well. Younger generations marry and establish nuclear family units, but they continue their relationships with the older family members. Older generations watch their children mature, marry and have their own children and the older generation continues to be involved in the lives of younger family members. A modified extended family pattern describes families within the U.S. For Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Asian American and other diverse heritages, families are intergenerational.

    As individuals live longer, their opportunities for multiple generational contact increases. For example, there is a 60 percent chance that a 60 year old female will have a living parent (Watkins, Menken, & Bongaarts, 1987), and it is likely that she is also a grandparent (Robertson, 1996). These intergenerational relationships are characterized by respect, responsibility, reciprocity and resiliency. Regardless of the generation (older, middle, younger) of focus, respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and resiliency are evident within the relationships, and these characteristics are relevant to individuals who work with older people and their families. These characteristics can be used as foundations on which to further strengthen intergenerational bonds.


    Younger generations evidence respect for older generations in numerous ways. As younger generations experience the usual benchmarks of maturation such as getting married, living independently, becoming parents, and developing a work pattern, relationships between the generations tend to become closer (Belsky & Rovine, 1984; Suitor & Pillemer, 1988; Roberts, Richards, & Bengtson, 1991). The challenges and joys of marriage, independent residence, employment and adulthood encourage younger generations to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of older generations and, as a result, many younger family members develop a respect for their parents and grandparents.

    During the adolescent and early adult years, younger persons may not be cognizant of the respect they hold for their elders. They may minimize the relevancy of the older generations' information because the younger generation feels more contemporary. But, as the younger generation experiences typical life events (marriage, work, parenthood), a renewed respect for family elders often ensues. Requesting advice from parents and grandparents, visiting grandparents, inquiring about parents' and grandparents' lives, and valuing relationships with older members of the family are manifestations of the respect younger generations have for older family members.

    It is respect for intergenerational relationships that provides some explanation for the importance younger family members place on relationships with older generations. College students and young adults consistently indicate that relationships with grandparents are important to them. They respect their lineage, and most younger persons have emotional ties to their older generations. For example, deference to older persons at family get togethers, expressed by placing them in seats of honor or preparing meals as the elder generation prepared meals are demonstrations of the respect younger generations have for older generations.


    For several decades, research in gerontology and family studies has reported younger generations' feelings of responsibility for older generations who are their kin (Suitor, Pillemer, Keeton, & Robison, 1996). Filial responsibility defined as "a sense of personal obligation for the well-being of aging parents" (Hamon, 1996, p. 2), is felt by younger generations. In other words, adult children and grandchildren have a sense of obligation for their parents and grandparents. It is typical for young adults to express a desire to provide assistance if their parents need it in the future. Within families in the U.S., it is typical for the younger generation to believe that they are responsible to provide some support to their older relatives, and many are conscious of this responsibility when they make major life decisions such as where they will live.

    Adult children make extraordinary sacrifices in supporting older relatives because they feel responsible to provide care. Responsibility may be grounded in a feeling of obligation or "pay back" for all the older generation previously did for the younger generation. For some, parenting is rewarded by the receipt of care in the later years, and the responsibility for such care is embedded within the family's values. For others, the sense of responsibility is based upon feelings of affection for the older persons. Feelings of love are translated into a sense of responsibility to care for an older parent. In a study of caregivers for older parents with dementia, Briggs (1998) reported finding that some caregivers feel that the sense of responsibility is basic to their parent-child relationship. "It is not a responsibility that can be mitigated by extenuating circumstances in the adult child's life. Other things may need to be worked out, but this caregiving responsibility becomes the priority" (Briggs, 1998, p. 8). Regardless of the motivation (obligation, affection, or a combination of both), it is clear that younger generations have a sense of responsibility to provide assistance to older relatives.

    This responsibility may differ depending on the need. For example, most middle class persons within the U.S. hold a sense of responsibility for the socioemotional needs of older relatives. Visiting, corresponding, telephoning, and e-mailing are a few examples of ways in which younger generations fulfill the responsibility that they feel. In so doing, they provide socioemotional support to their older relatives. The attention given to older persons informs them that they are important to the younger generation. When an older relative has physical limitations, it is expected that younger relatives will be willing to provide transportation, help with meals and other personal needs, mow the lawn, shovel the snow, and do other tasks that assist the older person with daily living. Feelings of intergenerational responsibility are translated into action within many families in the U.S.


    Throughout most of life, intergenerational relationships are characterized by reciprocity. While younger generations support older relatives, older relatives are assisting younger persons. In short, intergenerational relationships in the later years are a two-way street. The classic example that many people readily observe is the child care provided by many grandparents and the emotional support adult children and grandchildren give to the grandparents.

    Even in intense caregiving situations, reciprocal relationships exist. Parents tell their adult caregivers that they love and appreciate them, and such emotional reinforcement can ease the burden of caregiving. Burton (1992) reported that urban African American grandmothers sacrificed to provide care for their grandchildren and they received love and attention from their grandchildren. The reciprocal relationship between the generations is illustrated by the effects one generation has on another. Suitor, et al., (1996) report that life transitions (e.g., marriage divorce, child birth) experienced by adult children affect the lives of older persons and, in return, life changes (e.g., retirement, widowhood) have an impact on the younger generations. Intergenerational relationships are characterized by interdependency. Consequently, the relationships between the generations are often reciprocal.


    The resiliency of intergenerational relationships can be illustrated by the ways in which families develop strategies to deal with change within the family. For example, when divorce and remarriage occur within any generation, the intergenerational relationships are affected. Johnson (1988) found that middle class families experienced different kinship patterns after divorce. Paternal grandparents experienced a decline in support. However, in another study Johnson & Barer (1987) reported that paternal grandmothers increased their kin networks because they continued contact with the former daughters-in-law and added the new daughter-in-law to the kin network. The differing ways of dealing with the changes because of divorce underscore the resiliency of intergenerational relationships.

    Provision of care for older generations and the times when older generations become primary caregivers for grandchildren demonstrate the resiliency of intergenerational relationships. Burton (1992) and Minkler, Rose and Price (1992) provide data on surrogate parenting by older generations. Older persons, who have already parented, step in to parent when the younger generation is unable to do so. The resiliency of the intergenerational relationships provides a continuous emotional and physical support system to the youngest generation.

    Implications for Practice

    Service provision to intergenerational families requires an awareness of the respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and resiliency which characterize older family relationships. Service providers working with intergenerational families benefit from viewing those families from social systems and continuity paradigms.

    The social systems perspective acknowledges the frequent changes to which social systems must successfully respond in order to maintain their structure as a system. Intergenerational families are constantly placed in situations which call for adaptation and adjustment so that they can continue their functioning as a family. For example, the illness of an older family member may result in the adaptation of caregiving by a younger family member, most likely a daughter. The older family member must also adjust by accepting the help of the daughter. The daughter may need to make adaptations at her place of employment and in her own family, with her spouse and children, in order to provide the caregiving needed by her mother. As older families experience changes through life transitions and occasional crises, they evidence resilience through their ability to change the balance they have retained throughout their families' lives while retaining their family structure. It is through intergenerational cooperation and the working together of many parts of the family unit that this occurs.

    Viewing intergenerational families from a continuity perspective guides the professional to gather information about how an older individual and his or her family have adapted and responded to crises and transitions throughout the life of the family. This knowledge provides the practitioner with information about a particular intergenerational family's past history and can, therefore, assess their present ability to: (a) deal with life transitions and crises while evidencing respect for one another; (b) adapt to crises and life transitions by working together responsibly; (c) respond to life changes by giving to one another in a reciprocally; and (d) make necessary changes yet maintain family structure in a resilient manner. Families that in the past have responded to life situations with respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and resilience will likely continue those coping mechanisms in their present situations.

    Service providers who view intergenerational families from social systems and continuity perspectives are facilitated in their work with older families as they practice. Through the delivery of services, the respect intergenerational family members hold for one another can be solidified by knowledge of family history. In the following case example, older family members are reminded of their respectful treatment of one another and supported to continue that behavior in the present.

    Case Example

    When Mrs. Johnson fell in her living room, she was unable to reach the telephone. Her daughter found her there later that day and was upset that her brother had not checked on their mother in the morning, as he had agreed to do. The home health aide, who arrived in the midst of the crisis, reminded the daughter of the brother's regular stops at the mother's home and of their respectful work together in supporting their mother in the past. The home health aide asked the brother what had prevented him from checking on his mother that morning. He responded that his eight year old daughter had become sick at school and he had to pick her up during his lunch hour. He told both his mother and sister that he was sorry he had been unable to check on the mother and expressed his feelings of guilt. Both mother and sister responded that they would have done the same in similar circumstances.

    Respectfulness and Responsible Behavior

    The home health aide reminded family members of their past cooperation and respectful work together. In addition, she did not join in by blaming the brother but, instead, provided him with an opportunity to explain why he had not checked on his mother. Through modeling respectful behavior, the service provider facilitated the family in showing respect. Present family crises can be reframed as opportunities to solidify family members' respect for one another. As noted above, intergenerational families engage in caregiving activities for a variety of reasons. The responsible behavior that family members show to one another can be supported by service providers. First, service providers must acknowledge that intergenerational families may differ in the manner in which they evidence responsibility to their older members. One type of care is not necessarily better than another. As Rowe and Kahn note, "No single type of support is uniformly effective; effectiveness depends of the appropriateness of the supportive acts to the requirements of the situation and the person" (1997, p. 438).

    Second, and along these same lines, different populations carry out responsible behavior in different ways. Cultural backgrounds, ethnicity, racial experiences, and religious heritages all contribute to the manner in which responsibility to other generations of family members is enacted. Diller (1999) suggests that service providers engage in work with African American families that celebrates their uniqueness and strengths, rather than pressuring those families to engage in supportive behavior similar to other populations. Diller stresses the importance of identifying the particular traditions of each individual family within a specific population to find the roles they play in caregiving, but warns that the service provider will need to have established a trusting relationship before this can be accomplished.

    Third, service providers need to be aware of each client's definition of family. Although many caregivers are women (Hamon, 1996) who are relatives (Briggs, 1998), it is not safe to assume that the primary caregiver in a particular situation is a woman, a daughter, or even a blood relative. The caregiver may be a daughter-in-law, or even fictive kin. The caregiver may also be a neighbor or church member, but with emotional and responsibility ties that resemble those of family members. The professional's support of these relationships of responsibility can result in continued or added intergenerational support for the recipient of care.

    Some types of family responsibility should not be encouraged. Families may define responsible behavior as caregiving that does not result in the best care for the older member. Montenko and Greenberg suggest that "when families have a history of violence, abuse, or neglect, continued dependence may not be advisable" (1995, p. 385). Whether the service provider encourages family caregiving in these situations would depend on the level of dependence and type and extent of family behavior. Older parents may still desire to see and have a relationship with a child who has abused them, and adult children who are or have been abused or abusive may have this desire as well. The service provider needs to know family history and allow for self-determination to the extent possible, based on (a) who is the client, and (b) whether or not the client is able to give informed consent. If an abusive child wishes to continue caring for an older parent, the service provider has a responsibility to protect an older client. Also, if the older client is not able to give informed consent to the relationship, the service provider must take steps to provide service delivery in a manner which protects that client. In these cases, the best relationship may be a limited, monitored one in which the past abuser is educated and the abused individual is protected.

    However, in most situations, the service provider's role is to support intergenerational responsibility among family members. Not only does this provide support that can facilitate the well-being of the older client, but it also provides rewards for younger family members, including an enhanced self-concept, feelings of worth, and a sense of belonging to the family. At the same time, caregiving can create role strain for family members, particularly women (Moen, Robison, & Fields, 1994), and they can benefit from the service provider's involvement and encouragement.

    Reciprocal Relationships

    Intergenerational families engage in reciprocal relationships. A service provider who assumes that old age means unreciprocated dependence demeans the older person and his or her ability and desire to give to family members. A role that older individuals can play in the caregiving process is to become a partner in choosing and determining the types of service they receive. The service provider who facilitates self-determination on the part of older clients will frequently find clients who are able to become partners in the service delivery process.

    Programs which provide education and knowledge about quality caregiving to intergenerational families will foster self-determination and enhance the ability of members of those families to engage in reciprocal relationships with one another. The more actively family members can participate in quality caregiving, the better able they will be to provide care, encouragement, and support to one another.

    Service providers with knowledge of a family's history of reciprocity can utilize that information to facilitate families in dealing with current crises and transitions by working together. In addition, the service provider can remind an older parent (who is currently receiving care from an adult child) of the care that parent provided to the child's own family at an earlier time.


    The resilience of intergenerational families must be acknowledged in service provision and program development. In social systems terms, response to a crisis requires a reorganization within the family. Older families have repeatedly shown the ability to accomplish this. The professional's responsibility is not to take over when a crisis occurs. Rather, the professional's support may be needed to allow a reorganization to occur and to be maintained. In this way, family members are more able to carry out activities of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. Denying a family's resilience and taking over when not needed may foil the family's ability to provide care and may create feelings of failure for family members rather than a sense of success. Service providers are most effective when they allow family members, old and young, to make choices and become self-determining partners in the process.

    Resiliency in later life may be an acceptance of the dependence which an older person encounters. Montenko and Greenberg (1995) have suggested that dependence in older adults differs from dependence in earlier years. "Late-life dependence is characterized by mutually enhancing relationships and by the reciprocal responsibilities evident in adulthood" (1995, p. 387). These authors suggest that adjustment to dependence is most successful when older persons embrace their dependence and evidence autonomy by choosing when to ask for care and by becoming involved in decisions which will affect their future. "The role shifts and transitions that accompany the acceptance of dependence contribute to the ongoing growth and development of the family as a whole" (Montenko & Greenberg, 1995, p. 382).

    Family resilience may be most threatened when family members become overwhelmed with caregiving activities. If caregiving responsibilities have occurred suddenly, the family's attempts to reorganize may not occur quickly enough to provide the care necessary. Family members may feel that they cannot provide the care or even become involved to the necessary extent. For example, an unexpected illness of an elderly parent may have resulted in necessary, immediate, and all encompassing care. Family members may feel that the required tasks are beyond their abilities and resources.

    On the other hand, family caregiving responsibilities may have developed slowly, over a long period of time. Younger family caregivers who ran errands two years ago for older parents may currently find themselves driving their parents to doctor's appointments; in several more years, they may become involved in grocery shopping and house cleaning. Professionals need to be aware that those family members whose tasks have suddenly increased may experience feelings of being overwhelmed and need immediate information about resources to allow for shared caregiving. The support they require may differ from the less charged, but ongoing supportive services required by older families whose caregiving responsibilities have grown incrementally. By the same token, the second type of intergenerational caregiving family may experience feelings of never-ending hopelessness not yet acknowledged by the family with sudden caregiving responsibilities. In both of these situations, programs to support both the younger and older family members can function to enhance the resiliency that exists in intergenerational families.


    Intergenerational relationships within the U. S. are generally marked by respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and resiliency. Throughout the family history, younger, middle, and older generations develop ways to support one another in the later years. In fact, as the generations age, the intergenerational connections become more important. The intergenerational bonds provide a framework for service providers to support families in the later years.

    Service providers who recognize intergenerational families' abilities to reorganize in order to deal with life transitions in a respectful, responsible, reciprocal, and resilient manner can enhance the intergenerational relationships of their clients. Practitioners and programs which support intergenerational families in their endeavor to deal with later life caregiving issues will find that family members, old and young, are valuable partners in the service delivery process.


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