Research That Matters (January 17 - 20, 2008)

Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)

The Long Term Impact of Parenting an Adult Child with Bipolar Disorder

Kelly Anne Aschbrenner, MA, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jan Steven Greenberg, PhD, School of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Marsha Mailick Seltzer, PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Background and Purpose: The onset of bipolar disorder in an adult child presents potentially lifelong parenting challenges. Parents may provide decades of extended caregiving for their adult son or daughter who is suffering from bipolar disorder when debilitating symptoms produce ongoing obstacles to social and occupational functioning and independent living (Mueser & McGurk, 2004; Judd et al., 2005). This chronic caregiving role may cause stress for parents and threaten their physical and mental health (Seltzer, Greenberg, Floyd, Pettee & Hong, 2001). While past research provides important insights about family caregiving and mental illness, further research is needed to understand the long-term impact on parents of adult children with mental illness. The present study investigates the long-term impact of parenting an adult child with bipolar disorder by examining parental health and well-being as parents transition to retirement and old age.

Methods: Data for this study is drawn from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS). The WLS is a 50-year old community study of a random sample of over 10,000 Wisconsin high school seniors in 1957 and of their randomly selected siblings (Hauser et al, 1998). Primary sample members have been followed throughout adulthood. In the most recent wave of data collection, screening questions identified 180 parents of adult children with bipolar disorder. A comparison group of parents of adult children without disabilities is drawn from the WLS to estimate the relative impact of parenting a child with bipolar disorder. Parental outcomes are measured by parental reports of overall health, somatic symptoms, depressive symptoms, and psychological well-being. The method of data analysis is analysis of covariance (ANCOVA). Covariates were entered to control for background differences between the parents of adult children with bipolar disorder and parents of adult children without disabilities. The key independent variable is type of case (having a child with bipolar disorder or the comparison group).

Results: Data analysis reveal that parents of adult children with bipolar disorder report, on average, higher levels of somatic health symptoms (F = 9.5, p < .01) and depressive symptoms (F = 17.8, p < .001) when they are in their mid-60s compared to parents of unaffected children. There were, however, no significant differences in parental perceptions of their overall health and psychological well-being.

Conclusions and Implications: These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that due to the cyclical nature of bipolar disorder, parents of adult children with bipolar disorder will show a wear and tear effect over time. Despite the negative consequences of parenting an adult child with bipolar disorder, many parents were able to maintain their psychological well-being. It is plausible that the challenges of caring for an adult child with mental illness give parents a sense of personal growth and purpose in life as they enter late-life. These findings highlight the need to tailor services to meet the needs of older parents of adults with mental illness. In addition to addressing parental anxieties and frustrations, providers can work with families across the life course to identify and encourage areas of resilience.