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 (the topic of later blogs).

These contributions are hard to measure, especially in dollar terms. Organisations such as Carers New Zealand and the New Zealand Carers Alliance (www.carers.net.nz) estimate that there are 750,000 family caregivers of all ages. The census tells us that around one in 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 parental 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 to 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 even 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, as a result of 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, -aunts and others – also have important social and cultural roles. This is particularly important in Maori society, but also elsewhere. A New Zealand study asked young people what constitutes ‘good outcomes’ for them. Maori, Pakeha and Pacific youth all stressed the importance of keeping up family ties, participating in extended family activities and drawing on their support. This helped children know who they were and encouraged them to take an interest in learning more about their own cultures.

Maori and Pacific participants were more likely than Pakeha to expect young people to be actively involved with the extended family. Many of the young Maori and Pacific people interviewed expressed a sense of mutual obligation; the young help the old, the old help the young and so it goes around.

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.

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!

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.

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 www.ageconcern.org.nz
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10 Responses to Older People – valuable contributors in families

  1. Enid says:

    I am glad I have some members of my family close (geographically) but the remainder are overseas in 3 countries.
    We must also support our friends and it’s important to be mobile and get out of the house into mainstream life, because we are losing loved ones and friends.
    I also like to study (informally) during the long winter months. It keeps me sane.


  2. gordon says:

    Yes i feel the same the following look after the older people right up until they die Maori…Native Americans…Japanese… Chinese and many other races throughout the world but the white population seem to put them into rest hmes (NOT ALL I AGREE)but some regards gordon


  3. Mary Dudson says:

    With a large family scattered up and down New Zealand I find myself in the happy role of conveyor of news.Through visits, e-mails ,Skype and letters I seem to be the recepticle and become the sharer of famiy news. Sometimes the first question a family visitor asks is “What news?”.I love the role ..That is just one of the things that makes my old age so busy and enjoyable


  4. Ian Swift says:

    I am dead sure that the white race has one of the worst records in the world for the family looking after their elderly parents not that it applies to me.


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

    As usual, Judith Davey covers the issues very well. So long as we older people keep up with the field in the use of technology, as far as our own families are concerned, it is not difficult to keep in touch. Having said that we as individuals have a need for immediate social networking with friends, neighbours and colleagues to enable us to engage and contribute to the general well-being of our community. We older people have to learn to look after one another to maintain and enjoy our independence. In so doing we become part of the answer and not part of the problem.


  6. Stephanie Markson says:

    Our society would not function without the valuable input of seniors, family support, the wisdom gained in the workplace, the love of grandparents, volunteering in many organizations.


  7. John O'Neill says:

    It is important to stay in contact. This not easy for oldies when their families are mobile between cities, countries or continents. There is always email/facebook but that requires keyboard skills and some nerdiness. Enter Skype, as I have found out. All of us seniors need to have Skype and be shown how. Contacts then become no more than a ‘sitdown for a chat’ and free.


    • Dennis R Paget MNZM says:

      It is preferable, if new to the internet messaging, to join SKYPE before acquiring further internet skills. It’s simple and enhances one’s confidence. I have found SKYPE invaluable in maintaining contact with friends & relations overseas and acquired some internet skills at the same time. SKYPE operators often correct mistakes in messaging skills.
      I thoroughly agree with your comments


    • Liz Baxendine says:

      Good advice about Skype, John but my question is if children and grandchildren are not around, who teaches you to use it.
      It would be great if we older people could have some young people giving us some tutoring. Volunteers from senior students?


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