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The growing population of older adults and sudden responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a changing mindset among Americans about who should shoulder the responsibilities for their care, as well as who should pick up the tab, according to the results of new research.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and Cornell University measured how attitudes toward elder care have changed over time, based on 2,400 responses to the General Social Survey from NORC at the University of Chicago between 2012 and 2022. The results revealed a decrease in support for families shouldering those responsibilities and an increase in government-provided support over time.

Their findings were published in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, a publication of the American Sociological Society.

In 2012, 61% of Americans believed that families should provide care for older relatives. By 2022, that percentage fell to 48%. During the same time period, Americans’ support for government assistance almost doubled, from 13% to 25%.

Researchers said that the growing population of older adults, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, likely contributed to this attitudinal shift over time as people suddenly were faced with simultaneously caring for their children and their parents, who may have moved in temporarily or needed help during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, a lot of stories came out about the reality of elder care for adult children and other family members,” Sarah E. Patterson, PhD, a research investigator at the Survey Research Center and an affiliate at the Population Studies Center, both at the U-M Institute for Social Research, said in a press release. “Child care receives a lot of attention, but elder care is more hidden. I think that plays out in people’s attitudes. They think, ‘Now that I’ve seen what this means for me, I may need more help.’”

Attitudes about who should pay for elder care also have changed. In 2012, 37% of Americns said the government should help pay, and 44% believed that older adults and their families should pay. By 2022, however, 51% of survey respondents supported government financial help, and only 28% said that older adults and their families should pay for care. 

Patterson told McKnight’s Senior Living that the change in attitudes toward private operators providing care for older adults is smaller compared with families and government  — 8% in 2012 compared with 6% in 2022. But she said that the findings make sense in light of other research showing that combining family care with help from private providers is more common than older adults receiving only formal help.

Those trends in increasing support for government aid mirror other attitude surveys, including the Long-Term Care Poll, which show support for more government responsibility for the healthcare of older adults.

But those patterns noted in the new study were not consistent across ages. Older adults increased their support for family and government care, whereas younger adults were more likely to change their views over time for both family and government care. Similar differences were seen in how generations felt about who should pay for that care.

The work was supported by the National Institute on Aging and a Cornell Center for Social Science Faculty Fellowship.