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​Who should care for seniors? Depends where you live

With Western countries increasing dealing with aging societies, the answer to who should be responsible for seniors' economic well-being may simply depend on where you live.

Americans largely believe that the responsibility for the economic well-being for people in their old age sits on the shoulders of family members or the seniors themselves, according to a new report from Pew Research Center. In Italy and Germany, however, most believe the government should bear the greatest responsibility.

The report, which aims to understand how three rapidly aging societies are coping with that demographic shift, underscores how government policies can shape how families interact between generations. While the U.S. Social Security program provides benefits to one out of every six Americans and lifts more than 40 percent of seniors out of poverty, it offers fairly modest financial benefits, which may influence how Americans view their obligations toward seniors. American seniors, for instance, only rely on about one-third of their income coming from the government, compared with more than two-thirds in Italy and Germany, the study found.

Because the Social Security system provides a relatively small monthly check to most seniors -- the average benefit was $1,234 per month in 2012 -- Americans may be prompted to help out their parents to a greater extent than in other countries. About 28 percent of Americans said they provided financial help to at least one parent over the age of 65 in the past year, compared with just 18 percent and 20 percent for Germans and Italians, respectively.

One cross-national worry is the future of government retirement benefits, the report found. Germans and Italians are especially skeptical whether their countries will maintain current levels of support: 82 percent of Italians and 86 percent of Germans believe support will be reduced or entirely cut by the time they retire. In the U.S., 72 percent of Americans believe Social Security benefits will be reduced or eliminated.

The greater pessimism in Europe may be related to their demographic mix, which is decidedly grayer than in America. Germany and Italy are among the "oldest" countries in the world, trailing only Japan, and may provide insight into the pressures America will face as its population follows suit. One difference, however, is that the U.S. has maintained a younger demographic thanks to immigration and higher fertility rates.

"All three [government retirement programs] are financed through worker contributions and, in Europe more than in the U.S., the growing number of older adults along with a shrinking pool of younger active contributors has made it difficult to fund pensions for current retirees," Pew noted.

Even though Americans are widely viewed by financial experts as being woefully unprepared for retirement, seniors in the U.S. appear to be better off than their German or Italian counterparts. Forty-three percent of American seniors say they are comfortable financially, compared with only 22 percent in Germany and 15 percent in Italy.

And, while younger Americans are largely lagging in setting aside money for retirement, they're doing better than Italians. About 56 percent of Americans say they are saving for retirement, outside of Social Security contributions, compared with only 23 percent of Italians. Germans were the most retirement-minded, with 61 percent putting money aside.

"Sweat equity" is a major contributor from younger generations to their older parents, the study found. Across the three countries, the majority of residents said they participate in helping their elderly parents through hands-on help, such as running errands, doing housework or home repairs.

While it may sound stressful to take care of an aging parent, more than eight in 10 adults in all three countries said that helping their older parents is rewarding, Pew found.

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