Older People – Valuable Contributors in Families

We hear a lot about families caring (or not caring) for their older members. What should their responsibilities be? Do some cultures do it better than others? This is an important topic and important questions, but they concern only one aspect of the part which older people play in families. They are not just “receivers”; they are major “givers”.

Older people provide care too. They are the main carers of their husbands and wives as they become frail. They care for their adult children with disabilities. And they provide care for their grandchildren, ranging from casual baby-sitting to full-time care.

These contributions are hard to measure, especially in dollar terms. Organisations such as Carers New Zealand and the New Zealand Carers Alliance estimate that there are 750,000 family care givers of all ages. The census tells us that around one in every six women and one in ten men aged 65 to 74 care for children living in another household. In all ethnic groups, women are more likely to be involved than men. The figures are about the same for the Maori, Pacific, and European groups. But older Maori and Pacific people are more likely to be looking after children in their own households, as they are more likely to live in three-generation families.

Having safe and affordable childcare is a major worry for many parents. Making it easier for them to have a paid job is a great financial boost, especially to single-parents, and especially when eligibility for welfare benefits and childcare subsidies are being tightened up.

Childcare provided by older people has other advantages apart from cost.  It is also flexible, especially for shift work, school holidays, children’s illness and other emergencies. Grandparents and other relatives are the most trusted informal carers for children, often thought of as the closest thing to parents’ care. Family childcare is mostly organised and managed by mothers and often made easier by shared values and ‘ways of doing things’ between mothers and daughters. This type of caring can be a rewarding experience for older people; one that binds the family or whanau together. It can be a great deal of fun too!

Of course, the demands of employment and distance may mean that family care is not available. And there are other disadvantages. Family-based childcare may become a burden if expectations are too high and older people feel obliged to provide care while being over-taxed and/or in ill health.  You can have too much of a good thing.

Some grandmothers give up their own jobs to allow their daughters or daughters-in-law to return or remain in paid work. This could lead to competition between work choices and opportunities for older and younger women. More and more women becoming grandmothers have had lifetime careers of their own and are extending these careers well into their sixties or beyond.

There is also a long-term concern about intergenerational care for disabled adults. Their older caregivers frequently express fears about the future when they can no longer provide care themselves, through illness or death.

Many older people are very strong about “not wanting to be a burden” on their children. What do they mean? Probably they don’t want to be a financial burden. In countries like New Zealand, with state-provided retirement income, flows of financial help from younger to older family members are much less common than flows down the generations. Money moves from older parents to their adult children and grandchildren as inheritance, loans or gifts.

Many older people think it is better to help their children and grandchildren with gifts of money when they need it rather than having to wait until the older people die. Often this is linked to an important life event, such as getting married, buying a house or having a baby. It may be given to help family members after a crisis, such as redundancy, accidents, illness or relationship break-up. Sharing money can be a blessing for families, but it can also be a cause of strife; concerns about financial abuse are evidence of that.

Older people in families – grandparents, great uncles and aunts and others – also have important social and cultural roles. This is important in Maori society, but not only there. M ost young people acknowledge the importance of keeping up family ties, participating in extended family activities and drawing on their support.

As the population becomes more culturally diverse we will see different expressions of family and family obligations and hence of the cultural role of older people in families.

Older members of families have an important role in keeping wider sets of relatives connected with each other, acting as “conveyers of family history, heritage and traditions”. Older women, in particular, have been described as the “kin keepers” – an important thing for family and society wellbeing.

Grandparents and older relatives play an important role in keeping up the identity of the family; building connections between the past, present and future and shaping its own unique history. Their presence during transitions, such as weddings, birth commemorations and funerals provides an anchor of stability and family continuity. Grandparents may act as arbitrators and negotiate between parents and children concerning values and behaviour. They can act as go-betweens in disputes between teenagers and their parents – a thorny path indeed!


By Judith Davey. First appeared on Age Concern New Zealand website.

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