The proportion of individuals 65 years of age and older is expected to double by 2050. As such, concerns over their anticipated needs have largely focused on older adults as the recipients of care. I take a different approach by highlighting the fact that older adults can and do serve as caregivers themselves for spouses, siblings, friends, and their grandchildren. My dissertation research examines family dynamics and caregiving practices among African American grandmothers raising grandchildren in Detroit, Michigan. Specifically, I explore the moral obligations for providing care: what circumstances and reasons do grandmothers give for raising their grandchildren? I also research the resulting material forms, such as family heirlooms and photographs, that emerge as a conduit for displaying affective kinship ties.
In the beginning of my fieldwork, I met with an administrator familiar with caregiving grandparents in Detroit. When asked about the state of these caregiving older adults, they explained: “Many of these women don’t want to do this. They are tired and frustrated and have enough going on with themselves and getting old. Along with everything that comes along with that.” I left their office wanting to learn more about the grandparents who decided to take this responsibility upon themselves. What motivates one take on such an intensive caregiving task?
For the past year, I have sat in on numerous kinship care support group meetings throughout Detroit. Many of the participants are older women. One of the most interesting aspects of my dissertation research has been grappling with the generational difference between group members and myself and how it has shaped our interactions. For example, comments directed towards me are usually punctuated with: ‘You probably are too young to remember this, but..’ Or ‘Back in the day, before you were born…’ On the other hand, because of my age, I have been dubbed the unofficial technology consultant. I might show an older adult how to setup an email account and send an email, or how to text a picture to a relative.
Kinship care support groups are diverse in nature and cater to different populations. During group meetings, members may exchange information about upcoming events or useful services, give updates on their lives, or entertain a guest speaker. I initially heard about kinship support groups through a previous interviewee who, unfortunately, was unable to introduce me herself due to being hospitalized. I arrived to the meeting early making sure to introduce myself to other group members. By the time the meeting started, the group coordinator introduced me as a ‘guest speaker’ and stated the following: ‘Fayana is going to tell us who she is, why she is here, and exactly what she wants from us.’ I spent the next 15 minutes conducting an unexpected Q&A on where I grew up, who my parents were, how much time I’ve spent in Detroit. Eventually, I was able to talk briefly about my research interests.
At this point in my fieldwork, I have conducted interviews primarily with grandmothers raising grandchildren. I ask grandmothers about what they hope their grandchildren learn from them in terms of values, and the material objects that they hope to leave in their wake once they have passed. If I can, I ask that the grandmothers gather family pictures and other items to help facilitate our conversation. This usually ends up becoming a tour of the household or common living areas and I make sure to take notice of which specific items are pointed out and try to get them to explain their importance. This method helps me understand how material objects inform kinship.
I have interviewed administrators, social workers, and child and family services. Eventually I hope to conduct informal interviews with some of the grandchildren. As part of my fieldwork, I have gone to garage sales, bingo halls, church services, and birthday celebrations of grandmothers and their grandchildren. I’m even learning how to knit. I am also identifying archival sources for an historical perspective on the lives of African American families in Detroit following the Great Migration.
This article appears in our Spring 2016 newsletter. Read the entire newsletter here.