Background: The felt obligation to return a benefit, termed reciprocity, has been identified as motivating care exchanges between older adults and their younger family members. Within the context of large-scale emigration of young adults from the Indian state of Kerala, this study examines how left-behind older adults and their family care-givers recognise, interpret and give meaning to reciprocal exchanges, expectations and obligations in their care relationship. Methods: Employing a social exchange perspective, we qualitatively explore the norm of reciprocity through in-depth interviews of 48 participants (older adults and their care-givers) from emigrant households. Findings: Older adults and their care-givers identified reciprocal notions in their care exchange relationship that provided an interpretive framework for describing expectations, motivations, obligations and experiences across care-giving relationships. Spousal care-givers derived reciprocal motives and mutual care obligations through the institution of marriage. Adult children recognised filial duties and responsibilities and were in principle prepared to provide care to their parents. Reciprocating the support received and the likelihood of intergenerational transfers motivated care exchanges from adult children to their older parents. Daughters-in-law executed transferred filial roles from their emigrant husbands and bore a larger burden of care. Primary adult care-givers relied on the 'demonstration effect', hoping that children observe the care-giving process and emulate it later. Conclusions: Imbalances and non-reciprocity in the care exchange led to frustrations and threatened the care relationships.