What Kinship Still Means to the Elderly

Julia Jennings, pictured above, is looking at Scotland's aging populations, and how they've been affected by changing kin networks and economic resources. 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 8, 2018) — The aging among us may well remember television’s “The Waltons,” where a rural Depression-era Virginia family of 11 included in its homestead two respected and cared for grandparents, Zeb and Esther. Most of us realize this has become a rarer and rarer snapshot of how the elderly are treated in all of western society.

Julia Jennings, assistant professor of Anthropology, is now taking a modern look at the role of kinship ties in the wellbeing of older adults through her project, “Kin Networks and Old-Age Survival During the Demographic Transition,” which is supported by a prestigious Mentored Research Scientist Career Development Award from the National Institute on Aging.

“Family members are important sources of social and instrumental support for aging adults,” said Jennings. “Elders with strong kin networks experience better health and survival, but as populations age and fertility declines, these networks become sparser.”

The project investigates the effects of kin networks and economic resources on adult mortality in historical and contemporary aging populations using data from Orkney, Scotland, the Scottish Longitudinal Study, and the Healthy Aging in Scotland Study. By comparing modern and historical data from the same country, Jennings will examine multiple measures of kin support and health and how they change over historical time and throughout individual lives.

“Orkney experienced early population aging and decline and Scotland has a history of poorer health outcomes than the rest of the United Kingdom, which will allow for insight into the long-term process of population aging and the development of aging disparities,” she said.

According to Jennings, who centers much of her work on how economic, environmental, household, and family contexts shape past and present populations, this study’s findings may inform future research and policy, especially in contexts where kin are the primary source of support for elders.

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