Grandparenting: Caring or Caregiving?

Joint families, urbanisation and intergenerational communication

Thanks for reading! In this newsletter, we will look at new family groups and older adult development through the lens of grandparenting.

Now, let’s dive in!

Joint vs Nuclear Families: What are we missing in this debate?

In the 2011 census, the share of nuclear households was 52.1% — 12.97 crore nuclear out of 24.88 crore households. From 54.3% of the urban households of 2001, nuclear families have fallen to 52.3% of all urban households while they have seen a rise in rural areas. The 2011 census further introduced new categories of nuclear families, adding more complexity to the mix.

According to the government yardstick for classifying family size, a subnuclear family is a fragment of a nuclear family, such as a widow with unmarried children, or siblings living together. Supplemented nuclear families include a nuclear family’s members plus other relations, without spouses. Broken extended nuclear families comprise a head without a spouse with other relations, of whom only one has a spouse. A joint family can be of various compositions, including parents with married children.

According to the National Sample Survey data, the overall increase in nuclear households is at best modest. Moreover, the rise in the number of nuclear or fragmented households is actually a rising trend in rural areas (due to rural-urban migration, non-family employment and female employment) while similar shifts are lesser in urban areas, likely attributed to cost of housing. The need for childcare and the ability to provider better care for parents also helps reverse the trend and drives the rise in urban joint families. With increased lifespan, one can witness multi-generational households living in shrinking spaces and negotiated living arrangements in age un-friendly cities and older adults in rural areas living by themselves. While India on an average is urbanising much slower than other countries that have gone through similar demographic trajectories in the recent past (South Korea, China, etc), certain states and union territories are urbanizing much faster than the rest. This is as much a challenge with urban planning as it is about affordable housing in cities.

As per another study published early this year, the number of seniors living alone is highest in Tamil Nadu, and likely accelerated due to migration of young adults for education, marriage and business. The same survey also highlights that most elders prefer to move to smaller towns or move out of their houses when their children start their own families. Kerala, with the highest proportion of senior citizens, continues to see rise of old age homes in urban pockets, attributed to rapid urbanization and high levels of outward migration.

All of these factors, along with the acute impact of the pandemic on the elderly (restricted mobility, social isolation, anxiety, limited health access, etc), makes intergenerational communication an important factor in maintaining strong intergenerational relationships.

Grandparenting: Generativity vs Stagnation

Care for older adults is at the heart of most family conversations, and particularly more so during the pandemic.

The Swedish psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term Generativity, in the 1950s, as part of his theory around human development set in 8 stages. In his book, the Eight Ages of Man, he demystifies the fashionable insistence on dramatizing the dependence of older generation on the younger one, and argues how mature adults also need guidance and encouragement from those before them to truly mature. Generativity is simple terms defined as the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation, and this quite likely is at the heart of grandparenthood.

“I wouldn’t say we were caregivers; we were just caring for them”

This line that I read in a blog post is likely how most Indian grandparents would define their role in taking care of their grandchildren.

Studies around grandparental caregiving, particularly around their physical and emotional health, are uncommon in India although grandparents contribute disproportionately towards child and family care. While the importance of the role of grandparents in the developmental phase of children is widely understood, the changing parenting styles and choices lead to more contemporary issues. From 24*7 grandparents in joint families, the role of many can now be described as supportive on-call grandparents.

Ageing parents who are economically self-sufficient are increasingly choosing to reside separately, and those that are grandparents among them, spend a considerable part of their post-work lives as (primary or secondary) caregivers for their grandchildren. During this phase, which can last from a few years to a decade, they turn to adaptive living arrangements that includes moving between multiple quarters. Such adaptive arrangements are also common among older adults splitting time between their home and that of their children. Many older adults also provide care for the oldest among them thus extending their role as caregivers.

Understanding the changes in family compositions can help understand the impact on the quality of life of older adults, and grandparenting is one such critical phase in older adult development and evolution. Given it completes a certain intrinsic desire, to be grandparents, it is also a time to reflect upon late-stage care and living arrangements for sustained wellbeing.

UNFPA/HelpAge Report

15th June is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Read the recent UNFPA sponsored report by HelpAge – Bearing the Brunt – about the impact of COVID-19 on Older People across low- and middle-income countries through data, case studies and individual stories.

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