Family relationships

Family relationships become more important as people grow older. Some people related to their children more as adults and appreciated sharing similar beliefs, values and interests with them. Others appreciated their children and grandchildren becoming successful and quietly took some credit for the result of many years of parenting.

Family relationships become more important as people grow older. Some people related to their children more as adults and appreciated sharing similar beliefs, values and interests with them. Others appreciated their children and grandchildren becoming successful and quietly took some credit for the result of many years of parenting.

Lorna counts her family as the most important part of her life in her older years, along with her good health and mental capability.

Hans’ daughter is his only remaining family and he credits her with keeping him alive.

The increasing importance of family also applied to people’s relationship with their spouse. Being retired meant having more time together, and being able to do the things they had always wanted to do, such as travel (see Travel. Of equal importance, however, was maintaining their own interests as well as shared interests they could do as a couple (see Interests and activities).

Chris and his wife have shared activities, as well as individual pursuits, which he feels is vital to the success of their relationship.

Tonia and Michael have been married for over 70 years. They have become closer since they stopped work and could not live without each other.

Having their partner often meant people were able to cope better with many aspects of growing older. People who were still in a long-term relationship noted the long history they had together. Spending many years together meant most couples had come to accept the idiosyncrasies of their partner and had worked out ways to resolve issues. It was particularly challenging for people who were caring for their ill spouse, or if they were ageing at a different rate or in a different way to their partner.

Marjorie’s husband developed health problems as he aged that had a profound impact on her life.

Most people were happy just to have contact with their family, in whatever form it took; maintaining a good relationship did not necessarily require talking everyday or seeing each other often. Those who did not have their family close by appreciated regular contact by phone or email. Being able to use a computer and the internet was therefore a great help in staying in touch with family, particularly when people were housebound (see Technology).

Margaret has a good relationship with her children who do not live nearby. They communicate frequently, but not everyday.

Aboriginal participants spoke about the respect they received from their families and communities as they grew older. Their families looked after them, did things to help them out and learned from them. There was a sense of responsibility in being a leader in the community and the head of their family, and it was important they passed on this knowledge and leadership to the younger generation.

Elaine M’s children and grandchildren show her respect. She has a senior role in both Balanda (Western) and Yolngu (Aboriginal) society.

Different meanings of ‘family’

Many people we spoke to described the wide and inclusive definition of ‘family’ they have now that they are older. Extended family can, for some people, be closer to them than immediate family; this was particularly the case where children had grown up, moved away and had their own families.

Jack’s brother-in-law died three weeks before the interview. Jack saw him regularly and they were very close.

Those who did not have a conventional family, or did not have them nearby, kept themselves busy in other ways, such as with their paid or voluntary work (see Volunteering). They also invested emotionally in friendships, or pets, who became like family (see Friends and community).

Gil’s pets, while not like human relationships, are nonetheless extremely important to him.

Those who did not have children acknowledged that there were ‘downsides’; some were particularly conscious of not overburdening friends who had families that were their first responsibility. However, not having children meant they avoided the drawbacks of parenthood, were more involved with other family members and friends and had more time to engage in their own activities.

Nora lee enjoys the children of her extended family members and friends. She enjoys her life not having any children of her own.

Family often became important for practical reasons, particularly as people lost strength and mobility, or could no longer drive and became more housebound. Adult children and grandchildren were often called on to lend a hand, providing transport locally or help with the shopping, doing manual work around the house or helping with computers, TVs and other technology (see Technology).

Len can call on his sons to help him with tasks around the house that he now struggles to do.

Family also played a crucial role in legal arrangements (such as having enduring power of attorney) and in their medical care. This was most often informal, such as an adult child accompanying them to medical appointments. Family could also be an important resource concerning medical history.

Nora lee has been keeping notes about her medical history and that of her family, for her own benefit and to pass on to her sister.

Adult children in particular were extremely important when a spouse passed away. They provided practical support at a highly traumatic time, assisting with things like funeral arrangements (see Death and dying: Sabihe). They also provided a special kind of emotional support as they too were grieving for the same significant person in their own lives. The death of a family member often strengthened the relationship with surviving family members (see Death and dying: Dot).

While many people spoke about all the help their families gave them, they were especially concerned not to be a burden on them. They emphasised how important it was to them that their children and grandchildren had their own lives to lead. Not wanting to be a burden informed many of the decisions they made about their lives, such as living arrangements and plans to remain independent for as long as possible.

Dolores gives her children their space and she intends to live on her own as she grows older.

Activities with family

Activities with the family were highly valued. It was a way of keeping fit and active, as well as spending time with them. Grandchildren’s events in particular provided many opportunities to get out of the house and see new things, as well as to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives.

Barrie believes it is important to attend his grandchildren’s events, for their benefit and to participate in life.

Two people we spoke to noted how difficult it was participating in extended family functions after their spouse had died. They felt that their spouse’s extended family (and also certain friends) were uncomfortable and uncertain about how to behave with them.

Brian E found that his wife’s friends and family members changed in their attitude towards him after she died.

Having grandchildren and great-grandchildren was, for most of the grandparents we spoke to, a wonderful part of being older. They described them as helping them maintain a sense of humour, teaching them the ways of the modern world and ‘keeping them young’. They found it was rather different to parenthood; they had less responsibility for grandchildren (although they often provided practical assistance) and were free to enjoy them and have fun. Being a great-grandparent was different again.

Elaine H finds there are differences in her roles as grandmother and great-grandmother.

Some people found small children harder to deal with as they grew older. Standards of discipline have changed and the enthusiasm of little children could be difficult for people with decreasing strength, mobility and hearing and also for those with chronic conditions.

Merrilyn notes the intergenerational differences in the way children are disciplined.

Aboriginal participants, both men and women, talked about the responsibility they had for their grandchildren. Being the head of the family and responsible for guiding and disciplining younger family members could be extremely challenging at times.

Oscar finds the responsibility of being head of the family an important but onerous task.

Evolving family relationships

Family relationships evolved over time. Once children had grown up, moved out of home and had children of their own, they had a more adult-like relationship. Thus, many people felt they were closer to their adult children than they ever had been. Others felt they had drifted away.

Kaye reflects on the changing nature of her relationship with her children over the years and how she interacts with her grandchildren.

The passage of time did not mean a closer relationship for Gil and the children in his extended family. Instead, they drifted apart and he felt more pressure on his relationship with his partner.

People found that having a more adult relationship with their children meant that their children were more likely to express their opinions and concerns about how their parents were living their lives. This was often welcome and accepted as their children showing that they care. However, adult children could also be patronising and overbearing.

Helen B’s daughter is concerned about certain aspects of how her mother lives, which Helen sometimes finds infuriating.

A number of people also felt this kind of patronising attitude from other family members. It was often understandable from teenagers and could be amusing from children; but from adults it was more difficult to accept.

Marjorie feels that her extended family have treated her as an ‘old person’ and have shown little curiosity in her career or other pursuits.

One of the primary advantages of being retired was having more time to spend with extended family and getting to know new family members by marriage or birth. For some people, this meant an exciting time of starting new family relationships, which was not always expected in their older years.

Nora lee has more time to visit and talk to her family overseas now that she is retired and no longer married.

Gil has recently spent time with extended family members he did not previously know well. They got along extremely well and he intends to invest in these new relationships.