Exploring empathy in intergenerational relationships form the perspective of a group of older people
Intergenerational relationships refer to relationships between people in alternate generational groups. The increasing numbers of older people all over the world highlight the need for studies on psychological processes that enhance well-being through intergenerational relationships. People from different generations are co-dependent for care and support. Older people constitute a diverse group: some may experience a depletion of energy, physical, financial and emotional resources, while others have good health, financial security and stable social support networks. What all people, including older people, have in common, however, is a need for meaningful relationships. This makes it worthwhile to explore the experiences of relationships with younger people from the perspective of older people. This study is important because research indicates that the relationships between older people (60 years and older) and adolescents and young adults are strained. An initial study on intergenerational care experiences from the perspective of people aged 60 years and older and young people in the middle-adolescent developmental phase (at 16 years) revealed a lack of empathy from the older generation towards the younger generation. It was decided to focus in this study on intergenerational empathy specifically. Mutual empathetic understanding is suggested as a means to overcome challenges between members of generations that have to compete for limited resources, especially in low-resource areas such as the specific rural African community studied in Vaalharts, South Africa. It is suggested that empathy could increase intergenerational understanding between older and younger people dealing with their respective developmental challenges. The research was conducted in a community with high levels of poverty and limited physical and material resources. The study is qualitative in nature and used an interpretive descriptive research design. This design provided the basis to explore the perceptions of empathy by using theoretical constructs to derive at an understanding of experiences in the community and specifically those of the older generation. The 18 participants were all older than 60 and Setswana speaking but were also proficient in Afrikaans and English. Eight of the participants (1 man and 7 women) participated in study using the Mmogo-method®. This is a projective technique that uses visual presentations to gain a deeper insight into meaning that is developed between the participants. For the Mmogo-method®, participants (older people) were invited to make visual representations of how they experienced care in relation to young people in the middle adolescent developmental phase, at around 16 years. A further 10 participants (4 men and 6 woman), who were not part of the Mmogo-method® project, participated in semi-structured interviews. These interviews provided them the freedom to elaborate on their own unique experiences. Semi- structured interviews also provide a certain amount of structure for the interviewer to make sure that detailed information on empathy in arising relevant conversations are obtained. Data were analysed using an inductive approach as well as thematic analysis of experiences about intergenerational care: empathy (and specifically, a lack of empathy) emerged as a recurrent theme. The literature shows a connection between empathy and care, which accordingly served as the focus of this study. The data were further subjected to a directed form of content analysis (deductive category application) which was conducted after literature and theory on intergenerational empathy have been consulted. A visual analysis was conducted on the visual presentations that the participants built as part of the Mmogo- method®. Trustworthiness was ensured by using the principles proposed by Guba’s model of trustworthiness and that include: obtaining thick descriptions, ensuring credibility, member checking and ensuring confirmabillity. Ethical consent to conduct this study was given by the Human Research Ethics committee of the Faculty of Health Sciences in the North-West University (reference number NWU-00053-10-S1). A gatekeeper was used to gain access to the community studied and participants gave their informed consent. The lack of empathy from the perspective or the older people emerged from the way in which older people viewed the relationship with the young solely from their own perspective and from their inability to place themselves in the position of the younger persons. Older people were at first unable to visualize the young in their caring relationships; they expressed negative and judgemental attitudes towards them and perceived that the young people are rejecting the wisdom of their elders. Older people resorted to outsiders to assist in communicating with and disciplining the young. The lack of empathy on the part of the older people for the young can have dire effects on their vital intergenerational relationships. It is recommended that community-based interventions be developed to promote empathy between the two generations.
- Humanities