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Elderly people in economic distress feel a little better about life when they know that help is available. But actually getting it can make things worse again.

In a study conducted with 97 people aged 65 and older, Neal M. Krause, professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, measured economic stress and the reaction individuals had toward anticipating assistance or actually receiving it.

Sixteen percent of those surveyed experienced some sort of economic stress over the previous year--difficulty in paying phone or utility bills; a loss of 20 percent or more of their personal income; a problem with Social Security or retirement benefits; the inability to qualify for money to pay for medical, food, or housing expenses; or the inability to pay for a major purchase. Five percent of those interviewed had more than one of these experiences during the year.

Krause then examined the effects of anticipated support on the elderly under economic stress. Not surprisingly, the economically stressed elderly who believed that there was no one who could come to their aid in the future were the most depressed group. "Those who thought they would get a little assistance were considerably less depressed, and the effects of financial difficulties were offset completely among those who had the highest 'anticipated support' scores," says Krause.

But assistance may not match up with people's expectations. Krause discovered that symptoms of depression were significantly greater among those who actually received assistance from relatives, social workers, or government agencies than among those who got no help at all.

What does this mean for anxious children preparing to help their elderly parents? Krause suggests that they try not to be too ready to help too much. Instead, they should send the message that they are standing by, but they have faith in their parents' ability to cope and to solve the problem on their own. Sort of sounds like the speech our parents gave us when we were young and economically stressed, doesn't it?

For more information, see "Anticipated Support, Received Support, and Economic Stress Among Older Adults" in the November 1997 issue of the Journal of Gerentology: Psychological Sciences.

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