Families, Ageing and Migration

In earlier blogs I have showed how older people play a variety of social and economic roles within families and are involved in a range of two-way intergenerational exchanges. The social role of older people is often associated with grandparenthood. They are especially prominent in providing support to younger family members and to maintaining and passing on cultural ideas and activities. But what if migration is part of family dynamics? There is a new term – trans-national families – where members are spread across countries but still feel a sense of unity and caring. This is a growing phenomenon, linked to globalisation. People are increasingly going to work in other countries. This not only affects professionals (migrants doctors and nurses; engineers working on projects abroad) and managers (working for multi-national companies), but also unskilled and semi-skilled workers, like the thousands of Asians working in the Gulf States.

Around one in every five people living in New Zealand was not born here and around one in five people born in New Zealand is believed to be living overseas. This means that most of us will at one time or another have links to family living overseas and will face issues arising from this separation. In launching a report on trans-national families, the then Families Commissioner, Dr. Rajen Prasad said: “Over coming generations, New Zealand families will gradually develop more and more links with family members living overseas as marriage, careers, travel and migration continue to influence our population” (New Zealand Families Commission press release, 15 March, 2006).

There are several ways in which the experience of migration can affect the circumstances of older people: younger people migrate and leave older relatives behind; older people who have previously migrated return to their original homes; older people migrate to join family members in other countries (family reunification). Added to this is the ageing of migrant communities after long-term settlement, which applies to generations of Indian, Chinese and Pacific Island people in New Zealand. Family relationships and life-cycle stage are crucial factors in the decisions that people make about where and when to migrate, including decisions not to move. Young people move for better job prospects and the adventure of travel. Older people move to see their grandchildren growing up. Middle-aged people may wish to be closer to their aged and possibly frail parents.

Modern forms of communication, such as email and Skype, make it easier for trans-national families to keep up contact and emotional support, but what about care-giving? Does it always require proximity? Concern about older people and the costs of international travel often trigger family reunification. The decision to undertake trans-national care-giving, how and when, is influenced by the quality of personal relationships within families, but also by duty and obligation. This relates closely to cultural norms about social roles and responsibilities.

These considerations influence choices made by trans-national family members about where to spend their old age. The migration of older people, to join family members in other countries or moving between countries in retirement, is a growing trend and a complex phenomenon. They may have to adapt to a new societal framework; language and cultural barriers and different frameworks for formal services. They may find it difficult to accept that their adult children and grandchildren have moved away from traditional lifestyles, which the older people experienced as they grew up.

Social policy generally operates within the boundaries of nation states and difficulties arising from mobility and trans-national families may result. These include eligibility for immigration, pension access and portability, service provision and care-giving. Family reunification policies may be restricted by the assumption that older people will be a ‘burden’ on welfare and health systems. Access to pensions may require long-term residence or financial contributions. Portability of pensions has caused problems for Europeans moving to New Zealand and for Pacific Islanders wanting to retire in their homelands. Such policies overlook the two-way flow of caring and support within families and ignores the role of older people as active members in (trans-national) networks that mobilise family and community resources. 

When we looked at families, ageing and migration in the New Zealand Indian community we found many issues which applied to older New Zealanders in general. Three key issues were social isolation and loneliness; inter-generational roles and family issues; and care for dependent older people. But some aspects were specific to the Indian community and other migrant groups. 

Social isolation and loneliness
Although many older migrants live with their adult children and other family members, the problem of social isolation can still exist. Frequently older people are left to themselves while the other adults are at work, including most of the women, and their grandchildren are at school or in tertiary education. This may even apply to pre-school children, although care of young grandchildren is often one of the functions of older people in extended families. These childcare responsibilities (and sometimes housework tasks) may keep older people, especially the women, confined to the home. Isolation is compounded if the older people do not speak English, or do not speak it well. People who are isolated by illness or disability may not be able to communicate effectively with health and care-workers.

Many older migrants feel dependent on their adult children and this increases their feelings of isolation. It may be hard for them to leave the house unless their children provide transport. While the younger generation may think that this protects their older parents, they are in fact increasing their isolation.

Inter-generational roles and family issues
Migrants often welcome the opportunity for grandparents to teach their children language, cultural values and practices. But different views on child-rearing may cause tensions. Older people told us that seeing grandchildren moving away from their cultural roots was distressing. Living with in-laws, especially daughters-in-law, is a traditional source of conflict in many cultures. Wives may resent the time which their husbands spend with their widowed mothers. Mothers may feel that their daughters-in-law do not show them due deference or that their ways are too “modern”. Culturally-based patriarchal attitudes can also create problems. Grandfathers may expect to exert the power of head of the family, out of line with modern democratic approaches.  

Care for older people
Traditional norms often stress the obligation for families to care for their elders. However, the pace of modern life and the necessity for both husbands and wives to work, make it difficult to provide care at home for people with severe disabilities, especially if they are left alone all day. The option of residential care is resisted by both the younger and older generations but is beginning to be considered in the Indian community. To be acceptable, facilities must provide for special cultural needs, in terms of language, food, social and religious practices.

Families are likely to remain the main sources of care and support for dependent older people in migrant communities. But the research shows that the family support system may be under strain, with increasing workforce involvement and changing attitudes. It needs to be supported by appropriate and flexible services, and it is essential that housing, transport, and income support policies complement a strong cultural ethos of family support.

This article refers to a study by Judith Davey, Sally Keeling and Arvind Zodgekar (January 2010) Families, Ageing and Migration: Indian Communities in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.  IPS Working paper 10/03. Wellington: Institute of Policy Studies.  www.IPS.ac.nz

Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies,
Victoria University of Wellington

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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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