It’s not a fight, it’s a family

Most animal species do not live beyond the time that they can reproduce. But human beings do. Why is this? The answer lies in evolution. It is called the grandparent advantage. Human beings can pass on their knowledge and experience from generation to generation, from elders to children. In this way we have built up culture, technology and institutions which have made human beings, as a species, dominant across the planet.

The way this has happened is through the generations living together interdependently in families. Multi-generation families have been dominant for thousands of years and still are in some cultures. But the “modern” model is the nuclear family – Mum, Dad and the kids, living apart from grandparents.

Ideally we want to have a healthy society, in which the generations work together for the benefit of all, think positively about one another and agree about what we are trying to achieve. It is called “intergenerational solidarity”. Care and support, both financially and otherwise, move both up and down the generations. In policy terms, the government uses taxes to pay for education, infrastructure, environmental protection and job promotion. Workers pay taxes to support pensions and health care costs for older people. This is a separate topic. Here I am looking at intergenerational relationships in the family sphere.

The vast majority of care for the old and the young, and for people who are ill or disabled, is done by families. This arises from and depends on intergenerational solidarity. Why do families care? As well as emotional attachments between family members it is also a question of reciprocity. When we care for our older people we are acknowledging that they provided for us as children. We are also showing our children what intergenerational responsibilities mean. One woman I talked to said it was good to expose her children to this type of caring, so that they understand the “duty of care moves on”. Even very old people with significant disabilities can “give back” to their families through emotional support. Being able to contribute love, advice and support means that the older people feel less passive and dependent.

But intergenerational solidarity is coming under strain – for a variety of reasons. With people living longer and fewer children being born we are seeing “bean-pole” families. These have four or more generations alive at one time, but fewer people in each generation. The family tree more easily fits the “portrait” rather than the “landscape” display. There are fewer people to share the caring responsibilities. At the same time, people are being encouraged to be in paid work as much as possible (even people who have dependent children) and to prolong their working lives. This is squeezing out the capacity for intergenerational family care.

Changing family structures – more cohabitation, fewer marriages, more divorces and subsequent remarriages – are also challenging solidarity between the generations. How do people feel about providing care for their ex-in laws; for their step-grandchildren? Divorce or the breakdown of relationships, has a negative and significant impact on intergenerational links, especially for men, who may have weaker ties with their adult children than women do. The timing of divorce may be important. If it happens when children are young and the father loses contact with them, then these ties are often gone forever. But if parents divorce when the children are adults and good relationships have been formed and maintained, then ties between fathers and their children can often go on.

Not all intergenerational relations are positive

Family are expected to care for their members, but this does not necessarily promote harmonious and close intergenerational relations. This often comes out in relation to eldercare. People may resent having to care for an older relative and the sacrifices that this entails. In the worse cases this can lead to abuse and neglect. The older people, in their turn, may feel guilty or angry and see themselves as a burden on the family. The result may be depression, sadness and a breakdown of families.

Many people deliberately avoid relying on family members for support and help, because of strained relations or because they want to be independent. Attempts to help may be seen as interference. Children may feel they are entitled to be part of, and sometimes direct, the decisions of their older parents. When older people are “put” into rest homes, what does this say about who has decided? Help from children may be a mixed blessing for older people.

How much negotiation goes on within families? How do we find a balance between older people wanting to be independent, but also to keep connected to their children? Their children’s concern may feel like overprotection and a threat to their independence.
A family in Auckland I spoke to insisted that their older members, who lived with them, did not go out during the day when everyone was at work. They were afraid that the older people would get lost or fall, especially when using a bus. But as a result they were condemning them to isolation and loneliness.

Intergenerational conflict comes from a lack of understanding and respect between age groups. As society changes, so do habits and lifestyles, language and communication. Child-rearing practices change, as do expectations of work and careers, how households should be run and how money should be spent. Older generations may look askance at their children and grandchildren’s patterns of life. Remember the condemnation of even mild “swearing”. Living on credit, social networking, permissive sexuality and many other aspects of modern life are challenging for older people and may be difficult to comprehend when they emerge in their own families. Conflict between adolescents and their parents is expected, but problems of communication and understanding may extend well into adulthood. The challenge is not to let tensions and disagreements permanently damage intergenerational relationships. In other words – it is not a fight, it is a family.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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6 Responses to It’s not a fight, it’s a family

  1. Ted says:

    Sorry the links were rejected by the system but I came across it reading “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle-and REPAIR!” on Sightline Daily which originates on the west coast USA and has some quite interesting ideas. It’s like a newspaper with links to like minded stories.


  2. Ted says:

    I feel that there is a need for more “caring for one another”. We don’t need to be nurses or Dr’s to show kindness and concern for another older persons situation. We are able to approach one another with a smile or a joke and if we are rebuffed don’t take it personally. It could well be accepted and lead to an enjoyable encounter or helpful meeting of minds. Older people on their own really miss the touch that used to be so prevalent in our family but the family I married into had a much more reserved and non-touching hugging/kissing/background and I think that this is inhibiting a lot of the NZ population and increasing the sense of loneliness and Isolation.
    I think it would be nice if we could get around to grooming one another (free haircuts from me to you) or massage (not the parlour type) but a nice massage in a safe environment would do the world of good to an achy body whether from arthritis or osteoporosis or whatever, we need to be a bit less inhibited.
    I read of a movement in the Netherlands where a group of seniors rented a shop that was empty and opened it once a week as a coffee club where you brought your broken toaster, vacuum cleaner or chair and had a cup of coffee and darned someone else’s sox and an electrician would take a look at the toaster and revive it or tell you it was scrap metal but many of us have repairable appliances which are more expensive to repair than buy more cheap replacement and the appliance is quite repairable by a competent chap and the sox are good for many more darns as well and we all would get a cup of coffee and a muffin and a yarn as well. Have a look at this and see if you think it would work in NZ “It cane from here:


  3. Doreen Smith says:

    Everything in this article is true. The biggest problem that the children seem to think that their parent/s can’t think for themselves while they still can & consequently that they know better with out any discussion with the parents at all.


  4. Alan Swallow says:

    Alan Swallow

    This is a very complex subject and proves that it is not possible to change one demographic factor without invoking wide disruptions to the whole.
    Anne summarizes the problem up to a point but to extend the whole issue a step further (backward), consider the cases, such as myself and wife, who are both immigrants.
    We left all kith, kin and siblings behind in (1950’s) England and so have no older or contemporary relatives to comfort, support or care for us. We are on our own and so have to make our own provision for what the future holds.
    Our daughter has made a life for herself overseas and our grandchildren likewise are another step, geographically, removed.
    The pattern of one generation being born and growing up in its birth country but spending the major-and most productive – years in another, often far distant, country by the next is widely being accepted as the norm today. The old societal mores are well gone and the new ones are only just being reluctantly recognized if not yet accepted.
    Society, or the state’s responsibility, to care for those who reach the twilight zone after contributing to the richness of the country is more valid and deserving today as it ever was.


  5. Joe Rodrigues QSM (C.A. Hon. Retd) says:

    This is a huge subject to which there are no easy answers.
    No two cases are the same and circumstances are continually changing.
    One thing is for sure, there is an increasing number of older people in the upper age range needing ongoing care.
    To enable them to enjoy their remaining days, having them sing together regularly,will go a
    long way to keeping them happy and contented and become less dependent on medication.
    Providing the necessary facilities for this to happen is relatively cheap, easy to provide
    and cost effective.
    For more detailed information go to the ‘Sing For Your Life’ website.
    I am 92 and currently engaged in developing such facilities in New Plymouth and the rest of New Zealand.


  6. Anne Galloway says:

    In our case, living in a small town, our children have all left for the cities and/or overseas which is where work is in their fields. Consequently our interaction with our grandchildren is infrequent and as they enter teenage, even with the help of Skype and phone calls and reading their Facebook pages we are losing that closeness with them which is so important.


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