On the Role of the Extended Family in Helping to Pay for the Household Expenses of Unmarried Older Women (60+) in Latin America and the Caribbean

By De Vos, Susan | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

On the Role of the Extended Family in Helping to Pay for the Household Expenses of Unmarried Older Women (60+) in Latin America and the Caribbean


De Vos, Susan, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


INTRODUCTION

This paper helps document the importance of extended family living, defined in terms of both coresidence and child proximity, in helping older unmarried women pay their basic household expenses in Latin America and the Caribbean (LARC) in 2000. It also looks at the idea that economic need fosters family assistance in paying those expenses among unmarried elderly women. While it may be the case that in most developed countries, society at large plays a major role in providing for the economic well-being of elderly people, in LARC and other less developed areas, old age welfare has still been considered primarily or solely a private, family, responsibility, especially when it comes to unmarried women (Rofman, 2005). How the family meets that expectation, both cross-nationally and as societies change, is an important issue for research.

Ironically, despite its lessened role in providing for the economic well-being of older people, we know much more about the family situation of older people in more developed countries than in the much less developed areas as Latin America and the Caribbean (LARC). In more developed areas, it has become more accepted that surveys of older people ask questions about relatives, even when those relatives do not reside with the elder (e.g., Börsch-Supan et al., 2008). In less developed areas in contrast, such surveys are rare. As a consequence, most of what we know about the family of elders in Latin America and the Caribbean is limited to bare household information such as who lives with whom, and then only since about 1970 when many censuses began to enumerate households as well as populations. For instance, rather comprehensive studies of the household in a number of different Latin American countries during the 1970s and early 1980s found that most (-80% or more) unmarried elderly women in a variety of countries lived with others who almost always were relatives, usually adult children (De Vos, 1990; Palloni et al., 1999; United Nations, 2005).

Since coresidence often declines with development (e.g., Bongaarts and Zimmer, 2002; De Vos and Andrade, 2005; Köhli et al., 2005), one has to wonder what coresidence means. If information on coresidence, is all that exists, then we are probably best off assuming that coresidence helps indicate at least some economic assistance to the elder generation even if it can also help indicate economic assistance from the elder generation (Smits, 2010). Coresidence can relieve the older person of what is often the largest monthly expense, paying for housing, and it can also relieve the older person from having to buy food. By extension, living separately therefore indicates a lack of economic assistance to the older generation. But making these assumptions is an obvious leap. We are constantly reminded of the fact that co-residence may not help indicate economic assistance to older people, whether the example is from Yugoslavia, Spain or Nepal (e.g., Brandes, 1993; Goldstein et al., 1983; Sokolovsky, 1990). Younger family members can unfairly exploit elders under the guise of providing care, and coresidence can benefit the younger generation much more than the older generation (Brandes, 1996; Bertrand et al., 2000; Rofman, 2005). And exchanges with non-coresiding children may be substantial (Fokkema et al., 2008).

If actual coresidence declines during development, residence nearby (or proximity) may become more common, and may acquire many of the same functions that used to be confined to the coresidential unit (Aboderin, 2004; Smith, 1998). Research has found that extended family members often prefer to maintain separate households but still live close enough to have frequent interaction or provide emergency assistance (Davey and Szinovacz, 2008; Köhli et al., 2005; Kosberg, 1992; Jani-Le Bris, 1993). When people increasingly have the means to act on their preference, survey questions must ask about proximity, not just coresidence, or risk missing important information. …

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