Family Conflict as a Mediator of Caregiver Strain*

Date01 December 2006
Published date01 December 2006
AuthorWei Li,Tapashi B. Dalvi,Andrew Scharlach
Family Conflict as a Mediator of Caregiver Strain*
Andrew Scharlach Wei Li Tapashi B. Dalvi**
Abstract: The present study used structural equation modeling to examine the potential mediating effect of family
conflict on caregiver strain in a randomly drawn household sample of 650 adults with primary care responsibility
for an adult age 50 or older with a mental disability. Caregiver strain was directly influenced by the conflict, dis-
agreements, and hardships experienced by the caregiver’s family. Specifically, family conflict was found to mediate
the impact of care recipient mental impairment and caregiver educational level on caregiver strain, and mediate par-
tially the impact of caregiver income and caregiver-care recipient relationship. Findings suggest the importance of
considering family-centered approaches when designing interventions to assist family caregivers.
Key Words: caregiver distress, elder care, family caregiving, family stress.
Most research on the impact of cognitive impair-
ment has focused on the distress experienced by the
primary caregiver (Ory, Hoffman, Yee, Tennstedt, &
Schulz, 1999; Pruchno & Postashnik, 1998; Schulz,
O’Brien, Bookwala, & Fleissner, 1995). However,
there is substantial evidence that an elderly individ-
ual’s mental impairment can affect other family
members, as well, potentially creating stress for the
entire family system (Fisher & Lieberman, 1994;
Garwick, Detzner, & Boss, 1994; Peters-Davis,
Moss, & Pruchno, 1999). Although there frequently
is one family member who assumes primary respon-
sibility for providing hands-on care, other family
members often provide substantial secondary tangi-
ble assistance and social and emotional support
(Gaugler, Mendiondo, Smith, & Schmitt, 2003;
Penrod, Kane, Kane, & Finch, 1995; Tennstedt,
McKinlay, & Sullivan, 1989) and may experience
secondary threats to their psychological well-being,
physical health, and interactions with other family
members (Amirkhanyan & Wolf, 2003; Brody,
Hoffman, Kleban, & Schoonover, 1989; Peters-
Davis et al., 1999). The adaptations required by
these role shifts and disruptions in interpersonal
relationships can undermine family stability, poten-
tially resulting in family conflict and other signs of
family stress.
Because families are an important source of
social and emotional support to their members, as
well as a potential source of stress, disruptions to
family functioning can have deleterious effects for
individual family members who have demanding
care responsibilities such as caring for an elder with
mental impairments. Families disrupted by conflict
or other signs of family dysfunction are apt to pro-
vide less assistance to members with cognitive dis-
abilities (Lieberman & Fisher, 1999; Matthews &
Rosner, 1988) and less social and emotional sup-
port to those family members who have primary
care responsibilities (Gaugler et al., 2003; Weihs,
Fisher, & Baird, 2002), potentially exacerbating
caregiver strain. Most previous research on family
caregiving has focused solely on a single caregiver
and ways in which a care recipient’s impairments
and care needs affect the caregiver’s well-being.
This study examines the possibility that family con-
flict and related family hardships not only exacer-
bate the strain experienced by the primary caregiver
*This research was conducted with support from the California Department of Aging and the Kleiner Family Foundation. The authors are grateful to Teresa Dal Santo
for her assistance with all aspects of this project.
**Andrew Scharlach is Kleiner Professor of Aging in the School of Social Welfare at University of California, Berkeley, 120 Haviland, Berkeley, CA 94720-7400
( Wei Li is a Quantitative Research Analyst in the Center for Responsible Lending, 302 W Main Street, Durham, NC 27701 ( Tapashi B. Dalvi is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Epidemiology at University of California, Berkeley, 140 Warren Street,
Berkeley, CA 94720 (
Family Relations, 55 (December 2006), 625–635. Blackwell Publishing.
Copyright 2006 by the National Council on Family Relations.

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