One of the more iconic tropes from children’s fairytales is that of the wicked stepmother: a figure of pure evil that claims to know “best” but actually wreaks havoc. A new study flips the script on this archetype. Stepchildren, a team of researchers found, are the ones who complicate the lives of stepparents with dementia, as their incentive to “give back” what they received in childhood is fundamentally missing.

The study, which used an admittedly small sample of just 61 subjects, asked women who were caring for their ailing husbands to visually map their acquaintances according to social networks, positive networks, and negative networks, with some overlap to be expected. Out of the relationships populating the negative networks, 35 percent were stepchildren — a finding that the researchers suggest leads to negative mental states and severe burdens in terms of administering care.

"We learned from women in the study that those with higher levels of care-related disagreements with stepfamily members felt a significantly greater burden and feelings of depression related to care," lead author Carey Wexler Sherman, of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, told Reuters Health.

The evil stepchild trope may be overstated, however, as it’s not any source of negative involvement that makes a caregiver more likely to be depressed; it’s that the stepchild isn’t involved at all.

The reason for this is simple enough. Children, as they age into adulthood, begin to feel compelled to give back to their parents in certain ways. Repaying the enormous debt of childhood isn’t possible, but offering care in their parents’ infirm state is. Meanwhile, as a growing number of parents split and remarry, adult children become adult stepchildren, and the newly implanted parental figure inspires far less knee-jerk compassion than a person’s biological parent.

"Baby boomers are entering old age with complicated family structures — unlike their parents," Merril Silverstein, the Cantor Professor of Aging Studies at Syracuse University in New York, told Reuters Health. These family structures necessarily impact feelings of closeness in many people, even in those who are otherwise compassionate.

To perform their study, the researchers collected data between 2008 and 2010 on women who were either divorced or widowed, and later remarried. Most of the participants were white and middle-class, and the average age was 66 years old. Adding to the 35 percent of negative networks being comprised of stepchildren, a full two-thirds of women omitted stepchildren from their networks entirely.

The team listened to women complain of their stepchildren not being present enough to offer care, or offering to help but never following through. Subjects reported stepfamily members being more likely to meddle in care-related decisions, criticize, interfere, and offer unsolicited advice.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly a third of all marriages involve a partner who has remarried at some point in his or her life. And according to data from the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly five percent of the U.S. population — 15 million people — suffers from dementia, the combination of which makes peaceful cooperation among caregivers a critically important step in offering that care, according to Sherman.

"The first intervention that everyone can do in their own life is discuss with family members how health issues and caregiving will be handled," she said, noting that she and her colleagues are currently at work on a set of instructions for dementia caregivers and stepfamily members.

Sherman and the other authors acknowledge that more research needs to be done in order to better understand the full range of caregiver attitudes across more diverse groups.

Still, at present, families must take steps that facilitate communication and honesty, the team argued.

"It's important to note,” Sherman said, “that stepfamilies can do this successfully.”

Source: Wexler Sherman C, Webster N, Antonucci T. Dementia Caregiving in the Context of Late-Life Remarriage: Support Networks, Relationship Quality, and Well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2013.