Global Development Institute Blog

Dr Tanja Bastia, Reader, Global Development Institute and Dr Matthew Walsham, Research Associate, South-South Migration Hub, Global Development Institute

As we celebrate the International Day of Older Persons, we pause to reflect on the many contributions that older people make to development. We both work on ageing and migration, albeit in different contexts (Tanja in Bolivia, in Latin America and Matthew in Uganda, in Africa) and on different types of migrations (Matthew on internal migration and Tanja on cross-border migration). However, over the course of our projects, we found many themes in common.

Despite the fact older people in Bolivia and Uganda are generally perceived as being a drain on resources or highly vulnerable and in need of support, we found that in both contexts older people make significant contributions to the households they live in, their communities and thereby the country as a whole. In Tanja’s sample of 101 interviewees who were over 60 years old and lived across rural, urban and peri-urban areas in five departments in Bolivia, she found that 63.4 per cent of interviewees continued working, either in paid work in the cash economy or continuing to work on their land in subsistence farming.

Among Matthew’s interviewees, over 80 per cent were still working in the fields, shouldering a significant burden of agricultural work alongside younger members of the household.

The broader context to these findings is that in most lower-income countries, older-age pensions are not widely available so older people have to continue working. In Tanja’s sample, only 19.8 per cent of the interviewees had access to an employment-based pension. While almost everyone received the old-age cash transfer Renta Dignidad, most interviewees said that this was not enough to live on, so they had to continue working. Lulle and King’s research on Latvian migration to the UK also shows how older people also actively engage in cross-border migration, to find better-paid jobs but also to satisfy other desires.

Paid work or subsistence agriculture are not the only contributions older people make. They are also active providers of care to their family members. This sometimes includes taking sole responsibility for looking after their grandchildren in what can be complex arrangements of transnational or translocal care. In Uganda, grandmothers, in particular, are ‘anchors’ of care within translocal households, looking after the children of migrants, and devoting a substantial portion of their time and income to doing so. Many find this role highly rewarding and spoke of their grandchildren as sources of pride and joy. At the same time, however, they also represented a significant cause of stress and concern, especially in times of crisis or ill-health where older people’s resources may be stretched to breaking point.

While (adult) children’s migration can sometimes lead to increased vulnerability for the migrants’ parents, this is not always the case. In Bolivia, we found that migration outcomes for the parents differ across location (rural, urban, peri-urban), type of migration and socio-economic backgrounds. Some older people also experienced positive outcomes in one area of their lives (e.g. financial, through the receipt of remittances) and negative in others (e.g. emotional wellbeing). Others thrive in their new roles through their active participation in their (adult) children’s migration projects.

There are clear overlaps between internal and international migration that would definitely be helpful to explore more fully. At the same time, the existing models we use for understanding ageing and migration do not fit many contemporary realities. This is the case for conceptualisations of the household, for example, where the migration of younger people in Uganda in the context of changing social norms, new technologies and precarious livelihoods has created fluid family structures, in which older people head households that span rural and urban spaces, generating new forms of intergenerational translocality.

Social and economic realities are similarly fluid in this context, but are nonetheless shaped by existing dimensions of privilege or vulnerability, such as where age intersects with gender, wealth or ethnicity.

While our research was conducted before the pandemic, and no doubt, the situation will have worsened for many of the people we have interviewed, there were already then significant barriers to older people living their lives well. In Bolivia, a consistent difficulty interviewees mentioned was not only related to access to income and the fact that they had to continue working, no matter their age or their needs, but the very limited access they had to good health care or health care at all. Many interviewees continued to be active in civil society organisations and had healthy support networks. However, others experienced loneliness and marginalisation. We feel that these were the most difficult people to reach, partly given our snowballing methodology. Finally, transnational or translocal care practices differed significantly and were not available to everyone. For example, access to communication was uneven and, as Dora Sampaio has reminded us, even when communication technology is available, what is actually said in transnational conversations is partial and often heavily edited.

Ultimately, the lesson from our research is that older people are far more than the sum of their vulnerabilities or support needs. Across both productive and reproductive domains, they are active contributors to families, communities and society, often taking a key role within intergenerational households. The lives of older people are also diverse in character and far from static, challenging existing social models that focus on dependency or ‘traditional’ family structures. Nonetheless, there are common constraints across many settings, where older people face challenges in reducing heavy workloads, dealing with health challenges or accessing communication technologies essential to sustaining translocal or transnational relationships. Our challenge on International Older Person’s Day in our work and research is to acknowledge, engage with and respond to this complexity in full.

The presentations featured were recorded during a webinar and workshop on ageing and migration, which Tanja Bastia organised last December 2020 within the scope of the Leverhulme Fellowship she held on Ageing and migration: the challenges of transnational care and social inequalities. Tanja would like to acknowledge both the Leverhulme and MICRA, the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing, for their generosity in supporting this research and its dissemination. Thank you also to the Global Development Institute’s communications team for editing the presentations.

Photo by Pedro Henrique Santos on Unsplash. Image taken in Samaipata, Bolivia.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.