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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Impact of children's migration on health and health care-seeking behavior of elderly left behind

Ramesh Adhikari12*, Aree Jampaklay2 and Aphichat Chamratrithirong2

Author Affiliations

1 Geography and Population Department, Mahendra Ratna Campus, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal

2 Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, Salaya, Phutthamonthon, Nakhon Pathom 73170, Thailand

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:143  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-143

Published: 2 March 2011



Many countries are facing the burden of accelerated population aging and a lack of institutional support to meet the needs of older individuals. In developing countries, adult children are primarily responsible for the care of their elderly parents. However, out-migration of adult children is common in these countries. This study aims to explore the impact of migration on the health of the elderly left behind and their health care-seeking behavior.


This paper uses data from a national survey of older persons in Thailand conducted in 2007. The analysis is confined to those who were aged 60 years or above and who had at least one child (biological or step/adopted) (n = 28,677). Logistic regression was used to assess the net effect of migration of adult children on the health of the elderly left behind and their health care-seeking behavior, after controlling for other socio-demographic and economic variables.


More than two-thirds of the elderly (67%) had at least one migrant child. About three-fifths (58%) reported that they had at least one symptom of poor mental health. Almost three in five elderly (56%) rated their health as poor, and 44% had experienced at least one chronic disease. About two-thirds of the elderly (65%) got sick during the 5 years preceding the survey. An overwhelming majority of elderly (88%) who got sick during the five years preceding the survey had sought treatment for their last illness.

After controlling for socio-demographic and economic variables, our study found that those elderly who had a migrant child were more likely (OR = 1.10; 95% CI 1.05-1.17) to have symptoms of poor mental health than those whose children had not migrated. However, no significant association was observed among physical health, such as experience of chronic disease, perceived poor health, and illness of the elderly left behind. Interestingly, however, out-migration of adult children was independently associated with higher utilization of health services. The elderly who had migrant children were more likely (odds ratio = 1.22, CI 1.11-1.33) than those whose children had not migrated to seek treatment for their most recent illness, after controlling for socio-demographic and economic variables.


Our study provides novel evidence on an issue of special importance to countries affected by heavy out-migration of adult children, an issue that has received little attention. Out-migration of adult children was highly associated with poor mental health but it was not associated with the physical health of the elderly left behind. Out-migration of children was also highly associated with higher utilization of health facilities by the elderly. Thus, in order to decrease morbidity among the elderly as well as to maintain and enhance the well-being of families, programs should focus on alleviating the symptoms of poor mental health among the elderly left behind and aim to reduce the differences in utilization of health care-seeking behavior among elderly with children present in the community and elderly left behind.