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Forthcoming Anthro News Issue on Aging: A Preview

The November issue of Anthropology News will include several commentaries, as well as teaching strategies and a photo essay, highlighting current anthropological work on aging, the life course and eldercare. In anticipation of the issue, we feature here a brief article by Maria Cattell, research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History and president-elect of the Association for Africanist Anthropology, on family dynamics of intergenerational support in Kenya. Please post your comments below.

Intergenerational Support among Luyia of Western Kenya by Maria G Cattell (Field Museum)

A big question everywhere in this graying world is “How can we care for our old people?” Among Luyia in western Kenya, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, families have tried to provide care for the elderly as best they can. Even so, one hears much nonsense about African families disappearing, even from Africans who know how deeply they themselves are embedded in kin networks where people are always asking each other for help.

Maria Cattell blog photo (nov09 AN aging issue)In this 2004 photo, Paulina is giving great-granddaughter Didi a chicken, as Luyia grandmothers like to do. It is city girl Didi’s first visit to her rural homeland with her mother Frankline. As her granddaughter, Frankline was among the many children Paulina raised over the decades. In 2004 Paulina was 80 but still had a grandchild in her home—not an unusual situation for Luyia grandmothers, for various reasons. This picture thus inspires us to recognize that it’s not just the elderly who need care. It leads us to ask: “How do old people take care of others?” and it helps us realize that intergenerational support goes both ways.

Indeed, Luyia elders do not want to “just sit and eat,” although that is a cultural ideal for frail elders. Being active is respected, being idle is not. So elders prefer to provide for themselves and their families, work in their fields, participate in self-help groups, and serve their communities through church groups and school committees for as long as they can. “I still work!” they proudly say. “I still feed my family.” Only when frailty brings them to it do elders “just sit and eat.”

Luyia in the “middle” generation have been hit hard by AIDS, and their orphans mean greater burdens for grandparents. Surviving adult children try to do their part in intergenerational exchanges by providing money, food, clothing and labor for their parents. Grandchildren help too. If she were a little older, Didi would fetch water for her grandmother and help with meal preparation.

Luyia and other African families are not disappearing, nor is intergenerational support disappearing, though people do struggle daily with poverty and the novelties, uncertainties and complexities of modern life. Their responses are sometimes negative, but most often they look for ways to adapt their systems of shared social support to current contingencies, as they have done through the past century of profound change.

Maria Cattell has researched aging, elders, gender, family life and social change in western Kenya since 1982. She has many publications on those topics and is co-author of Old Age in Global Perspective. She has experienced bi-directional intergenerational support personally in her American and Kenyan families.

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