Do sons contribute more toward elderly care?

By bringing together gender and intergenerational dynamics, the authors of this paper analyse “the relative contributions of sons and daughters to the well-being of their parents”

May 23, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 10:32 am IST

For representative purposes

For representative purposes | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Srinivasan, Sharada, S. Irudaya Rajan, Aswini Nanda, and Arjun Bedi (2023). ‘Married Daughters’ Contributions to Elderly Parents’ Well-Being: A Review and Evidence from Haryana, India. S.I. Rajan (ed) Handbook of Aging, Health and Public Policy.

By 2050, India’s elderly population will touch 319 million — three times the number identified by the 2011 Census. The number of people over the age of 60 is projected to increase from 8.6% of the population (2011 Census) to 20% by 2050. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of India’s elderly are not covered, or covered adequately, by pension and social welfare. Therefore, the burden often falls on children to take care of their parents. In this context, old age support is one of the main factors driving the preference for a son. And our society is known to prefer sons, to the extent of resorting to illegal sex selective abortion.

In this paper, which brings together gender and intergenerational dynamics in conjunction with expectations of children, the authors analyse “the relative contributions of sons and daughters to the well-being of their parents, especially in the absence of sons.” It has two segments: a review of the existing research on this subject, and a field-work based study conducted in Haryana, a State known for relatively low women’s status, high son preference, and a large daughter deficit. In the process, the authors draw attention to the contributions that married daughters make to their natal families — an aspect that tends to become invisibilised in a patrilocal culture (a residence pattern where a woman shifts to her husband’s home or community after marriage).

Significantly, the analysis is embedded in a political economy framework, which holds that people have children not only out of love or for emotional reasons but also because “they invest in children as a way of guaranteeing their future, both in terms of the continuity of lineage and their own care once they become old.” In fact, the review of existing literature shows this to be the case in different countries and cultures, “especially in a context of poor economic development and/or in the absence of universal pension or social welfare.”

Why the preference?

In the West, the welfare of the elderly is guaranteed through relatively well-funded pension and social security systems. But in India, which has the world’s second largest population of people over the age of 60 and where over 90% of the workforce is in the unorganised sector, pensions are limited to a tiny minority employed in the public sector, and to a lesser extent, in the private sector. In other words, “economic and social policies to ensure the welfare of the elderly in India are limited” in a context where “poverty incidence is higher among the elderly, especially older women,” leading to greater economic dependency. They thus end up relying on family and their own labour to take care of themselves. This is where a son becomes “preferable” over a daughter. “While a son contributes economically even after marriage, it is by bringing a daughter-in-law that he ensures the care of his parents especially when they grow old.”

Also read | A new vision for old age care 

As a result, “son preference reinforces lower status of women through sex selection as well as discrimination against surviving daughters.” Also, parents with sons, through the practice of arranged marriage, tend to select “submissive daughters-in-law to ensure old age support”, which again affects gender equality. The flip side of this practice is that “since a (married) daughter is not expected to care for her natal family, not only is she valued less but it is likely that her contributions are invisibilised.” Existing research also suggests that “sons may not always care for their parents out of a sense of duty but may do so to derive benefits from providing support, for example, a higher inheritance or elderly parents taking care of grandchildren.”

A key study referenced in the paper is the Korean success story in reversing sex ratio imbalance, which suggests that an effective strategy to curb “daughter elimination” — rampant in States like Haryana — is “publicly financed policies to ensure financial support and health care for the elderly” which can reduce their dependence on sons.

The study

Coming to India, as per a 2013 country-wide survey, 85% of elderly co-reside with their children. More elderly women than men live alone. The same study also found that “expectations about old age are extremely oriented to sons with 80% of young parents expecting to be supported by sons when they get old.” According to a 2012 UNFPA study covering seven States, “nearly 50% of the elderly live in joint families with their spouses, children and grandchildren” and there was a “strong preference to live with sons, while preference for living with daughters of being supported by them was low.” Also, for the most part, studies on elderly care in India do not examine whether and how married daughters support their parents, or what is the care arrangement in daughter-only families. These are important questions, and the paper offers four reasons why.

First, elderly care is central to the issue of daughter discrimination; secondly, as everyone assumes parents will live with their sons and that daughters are not expected to contribute, this has acquired the status of what is ‘normal’. As a result, even when daughters contribute, survey respondents indicate that it is sons who support them. Third, given that the married daughter’s income is likely to be pooled with the husband’s, “daughters’ support to parents may be limited to emotional and social”. Lastly, when married daughters do support their parents financially — which they may do with or without the knowledge of their husbands — “their parents may not reveal such support because of fear of social censure, which in turn perpetuates the discourse that married daughters do not support their parents financially.”

The second part of this paper seeks to address this gap in existing literature by studying care patterns among elderly parents residing in Haryana, a State with one of the lowest 0-6 sex ratios in India — it was 834 as per the 2011 Census, as against India’s 919, and the expected ratio of 952 girls per 1,000 boys. Out of the State’s 21 districts, the authors focussed on four that had the highest proportion of the elderly (60 and above years). A total of 684 elderly households located in 56 villages were surveyed.

Do daughters contribute?

The survey compared expectations (of support) versus experiences. While half the households expected that sons would take care of them in their old age, only 15% expected financial support from their daughters. Did the experiences mirror the expectations? Well, “62% of the respondents said that having a son was advantageous in their old age” while the corresponding figure for daughters was only 31%. However, elderly respondents “overwhelmingly appreciated the non-financial care provided by daughters regardless of their marital status.” An interesting element that emerged was that “even though there is greater expectation and experience of receiving financial support from sons, a substantial proportion expect to rely on their own savings/assets in old age.”

For a clearer picture of the patterns of financial support, the authors gathered information on household income and sources of income. The annual household incomes of the households surveyed, on average, amounted to ₹1.3 lakhs a year, which was much lower than Haryana’s per capita income in 2019 (₹2.5 lakhs). The study found that annual household incomes were significantly lower in daughter-only households, while there were no significant differences in average incomes between son-only and mixed-children households. In the bulk of the families, the main source of income was the Haryana government’s Old Age Samman Allowance (in 2019 it provided ₹2,000 per month to 60+ persons domiciled in Haryana).

In the case of son-only families, children contribute 24% of household income, while in the case of daughter-only families, the daughters’ contribution amounts to only 1.5% of household income. Daughter-only families also have lower income and rely more on income from pension and from their own jobs/farms. In mixed families, sons contribute 16% of household income, while daughters were reported not to contribute. However, what’s telling is the support, or the lack of it, from children during emergencies. “In the case of almost all types of shocks, the elderly tend to rely on their own resources,” the paper found. They borrow, or they sell assets. “The reliance on such a coping strategy ranges from 45% of shock-affected households in the case of economic shocks to 77% in the case of natural shocks,” the survey found. Interestingly, “reliance on both sons and daughters is low or negligible for all shock types.”

In the case of a health shock, however, there was more support from daughters (11%) as compared to sons (8%) — which goes against the grain of beliefs and myths that underpin son preference.

The study concludes by noting that in view of the higher prevalence of poverty and illness, “especially among older women, and among the elderly with only daughters, there is an urgent need for further strengthening health coverage and pension support.”

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