1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Ageing, Development and Social Protection

Case Study by Cristina Gomes da Conceição & Verónica Montes de Oca Zavala

  • Project from: 2001 to 2003



The process of demographic ageing is silently consolidating itself in Mexico. At the same time, although macroeconomic indicators show economic growth, social indicators evidence structural inequality processes, increasing poverty, and extreme poverty. This context is putting both formal and informal protection systems to the test. In the former case, the institutional structure of social security and assistance has undergone changes and revealed itself to be insufficient to meet the demands of an ever-increasing and heterogeneous demographic segment. Family and social support networks are at the centre of informal social protection systems and tend to display a complex dynamic of domestic arrangements and co-residential mechanisms to help caring for elderly family members. This is the key theme of this article. However, those strategies have been limited by the demographic dynamic itself, and by socio-economic and cultural changes. Taking a gender perspective, this work presents informal care mechanisms and support and exchange systems, particularly those involving their children, in which the elderly adult is both recipient and provider of different types of help. Gender perspective takes into account that men and women from different generations play roles in society, family, and community in a complex process of reconstructing networks, representations, and stereotypes regarding ageing. The document starts from the current vast literature on Mexico's socio-economic and demographic context, recovers information from qualitative and quantitative studies on ageing, incorporating case studies and information available so far from surveys of the elderly population (ENSE-94 and SABE-98).

Based on the above, this article discusses and demonstrates that family support is not universal or homogeneous, and could even be absent. The conclusion is that families look after their elderly members, but in different ways, depending on certain socio-demographic characteristics and either the elderly person's advantageous or disadvantageous situation. The care required by an ailing elderly member is less onerous, in some cases, when there are economic resources, housing ownership, and other properties to resort to, in the event of urgent situations. Representations of past roles played by mother and father also clearly define children's positions and decisions when the time comes to offer support to their ageing parents. Gender perspective makes it possible to observe the different stereotypes that justify children's denial or negotiation over interchange of support with their elderly fathers and mothers.

Regarding the support provided by elderly adults, extensive and varied activities by them were found. Elderly adults provide money, services, gifts, and care for children, depending on their possibilities and gender. It was also found that spouses are the main recipients of support, followed by children, parents, and lastly by sons-/daughters-in-law, as well as fathers-/mothers-in-law, and brothers and sisters. In addition, elderly people can be the primary caregivers in cases of illness of adult children or those responsible for their grandchildren. Generally, their contributions are relevant for the well-being of children's and parents' households; sometimes this support is invaluable given the trust and the nature of the help involved.

Mexico's family inheritance systems vary from rural to urban areas. In the former, ejido land succession in case of death depends on the occupant of the ejido plot, or on the Ejidal Assembly. This situation often marginalizes elderly women, disadvantaging them in the family and community. In urban areas, knowledge of an inheritance may stimulate or discourage family support. Situations stemming from that fact oscillate from cooperation to family conflict. In both cases, greater life expectancy results in descendents having to wait longer for any inheritance, a situation that can also diminish the steadfastness of interchange.

Finally, intergenerational reciprocity, as a principle implicit in support and exchange relationships, tends to vary according to the socio-economic situation of both elderly adults and their children. Pensions and other monetary resources also make elderly adults more attractive or less of a burden for adult generations. They also enable elderly adults to have more autonomy, to decide to live by themselves, or to share their domestic space with children and grandchildren. Options may result in solidarity networks, and situations of negation or conflict. The number of children also affects the perception of reciprocity and the exchange relationship. Thus, a larger number of descendants without a sound economic position may not represent any support, while having fewer descendants with economic resources raises expectations of support and reciprocity. In some cases, reciprocity is immediate or deferred, depending on past actions. Immediate or deferred reciprocity is expected from family members, while non-family support networks are expected to offer immediate reciprocity.