Family and ageing in South Africa: An exploration of family and the position of older people
Steyn, Sandra Elizabeth
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Discourses in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South Africa point to the importance of family in the lives of its members. Rapid population ageing has refocused debates about the obligations that family members should fulfil towards each other and their vulnerable members such as children and older people. Explorations of families in SSA and South Africa have until now tended to focus on a dated perspective that does not necessarily reflect the diversity and fluidity of contemporary families. Exploring family is especially vital as governments and family members themselves expect families to fulfil universal and specific functions. In the South African context, these functions and who is responsible for them within families are not clear. The present study therefore aimed to explore and understand who is regarded as family and why and how older people are positioned within these conceptualisations. As a consequence, the study’s broad aim included the following objectives: (a) conducting a critical review of the extant literature on theoretical conceptualisations of families in SSA and South Africa, (b) exploring family conceptualisations of participants across different developmental phases of a South African group and (c) exploring the position of older people within these conceptualisations. The critical literary review illustrated the different approaches to understanding families in SSA and South Africa and highlighted a gap in research that the present study aimed to address. The review entered scholarly debates by evaluating and critiquing extant views about how families are understood theoretically, highlighting the prevailing practices in family studies and suggesting a way forward based on the reviewed literature. In its turn, the empirical part of the present study demonstrated that family descriptions are based on different domains and that members position older people as nodes of strength within their families. In their turn, careful reading of theoretical contributions in this field highlighted the prevalence of the underlying assumptions of a ‘wishful’ or romanticised approach to understanding families in policy and literature discourses. The application of this approach raised some questions about how this popular discourse manifests itself in practice. It was found that the ideologies within literature about what families should be like, point to a deep longing to address emotional and instrumental needs within family contexts. The contributions made by this study are over-arching and has implications on societal-, community- and individual levels. The present study further emphasised the value-relatedness of family membership, suggested alternative connections (such as a sense of belonging) to the family unit and stressed the inclusion of significant others as an extension of families. The findings of the present study moreover demonstrated that positioning of older people in families was facilitated by family cohesion, flexibility and communication while it further related to families’ affective and instrumental needs. The findings engaged the discourses about the role of older people as primary caretakers of their families and communities, showing potential improvements in these discourses.
- Health Sciences 
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