"The role of the formal system as a partner and back-up for family care is growing in importance at the very time we are seeing funding cuts at the local, state and federal level," stated Marjorie Cantor, winner of the 2003 American Society on Aging (ASA) Senior Award.
Cantor, the Brookdale Distinguished Scholar at Fordham University's Graduate School of Social Service, is also coauthor of Social Care of the Elderly: the Effects of Ethnicity, Class and Culture (New York City: Springer, 2000). She delivered a special lecture on that theme upon receiving the award at the 2003 Joint Conference of the National Council on the Aging and ASA in Chicago last March.
30 YEARS OF RESEARCH
In her address, Cantor reflected on more than 30 years of research. In part, the studies she discussed challenge long-held concerns by policymakers that families will cease providing unpaid informal care to older relatives if government makes more formal services available to them. A Key lesson for today from her research, she said, is that "only a working partnership between family and community agencies can reverse the trend toward reducing the role of government in providing adequate services for elders and all people in need. Particularly in times like this, a more integrated approach to the provision of social care will be essential, with the components of the social care system waking togemer."
Cantor reviewed the findings of the critical 1970 study of older adults in New York's inner city-the first large-scale study of urban elders-and of the followup study she oversaw 20 years later, "Growing Older in New York in the studies, each of which included a representative sample of about 1,500 older individuals who were interviewed in their homes, yielded important findings about how older people and their families perceive social care and who should provide it, she said.
According to the surveys, she explained, "Although there is tremendous diversity among elders, certain themes are common to all ethnic groups." Both studies and subsequent research by others, she said, concluded that families are not abandoning their older members, whose social networks are as strong today as they were in 1970. The New York researchers determined that elders and their families have strong preferences for sources of assistance, she said: They see family as the first avenue of help, followed by friends and neighbors. Cantor emphasized that elders turn to formal community services "only when mere is no family present or the family can no longer provide the required help." In addition, the studies found that ethnic and cultural biases often erect barriers in some groups of elders against seeking the formal help they may need.
Cantor noted that subtle differences between the various groups broken out in the surveys-Jewish, Latino and African American elders-challenge broad assumptions and demonstrate the wisdom of research on different subpopulations to understand how best to serve each group. For example, the research team found that older Jews were more apt to take advatage of community services than Latino eMers. On the one hand, the researchers discovered that the Jewish group included many more very elderly members over age 80 who had fewer adult children available for hands-on care than the other groups in the study. These elders viewed the formal system as helping them remain independent On the other hand, older Latino participants were significantly less likely than the other groups to turn to community agencies for assistance.
Cantor explained that even though older Latinos had strong family-centered informal support networks, the value they placed on kinship networks over seeking outside assistance sometimes presented a hurdle to their obtaining needed aid. Contrary to the common assumption mat Latino elders can draw on assistance from others eb their extended family households, the 1990 study showed that "over one-third of Latino elders in the sample lived alone. …