Home | Practical Living | ‘They need to look after their parents’: family support among older, widowed Greek-Australian migrants

‘They need to look after their parents’: family support among older, widowed Greek-Australian migrants

Support from family is often important to older migrants residing in ‘foreign lands’. This is especially so in later-life widowhood, where older migrants find themselves alone, without their spouses. This article is based on research with older, widowed Greek migrants in urban and rural South Australia. I conducted in-depth interviews in Greek with 41 widowed migrants, and translated the findings to English for wider dissemination.

Among this group, traditional gender roles and responsibilities were typically fostered, leading to specific challenges in widowhood, such as finances and transport for women, and cooking and cleaning for men. An 88-year-old man, widowed for a year, relayed: “When my Mrs was here, it was good … But now it’s very hard … I cook alone, I clean alone … everything alone. It’s not a good life now … I don’t have a woman to help me.” For all older adults, losing a spouse and associated support in older age can negatively impact health and well-being.

Family support among Greek migrants
Greek-Australian families are typically described as collectivist, cohesive, and supportive. Most of the older Greek migrants I spoke to were born into large families. Expectations of familial support, especially in older age, were often retained many years post-migration. Several explained non-English speaking migrants ageing in Australia required additional support from their children compared to English-speaking or non-migrant parents, due to language and cultural barriers. An 85-year-old-man, widowed for six years, stated: “[Kids] have to show interest, because the parents showed concern for them, brought them up, educated them … If the kids are good … they show concern … This is the right thing to do … they can’t have you in their homes, leave their jobs … look after you every second of the day but … contribute, make time for their parents … More so for us [migrants] who are here and don’t speak English … We want help from our children.” Fotis, widowed for a year, said: “They have obligations … to look after us, protect us in our old age, to help us here with the language because we don’t know it.”

Adult children are often expected to care for ageing parents, and frequently provide informal support to their parents from young ages. Familial support was often so accessible among this group (especially among those residing close to children), that formal support avenues were often not considered or used. Contact with, and support from family, was simply preferred over other providers. Providing support is influenced by geographic location and overall familial closeness. The individuals I spoke with received both emotional and instrumental support across different domains. Sharing emotions and worries was cathartic, though some avoided discussing the death of their spouse for fear of upsetting others. Several women reported forcing themselves to mask their feelings, to appear happier around their children, despite feeling internal anguish.

Most older Greeks I spoke with provided examples of strong and reciprocal familial support and networks. Many had relied heavily on familial support even prior to widowhood, however spousal loss often heightened dependence on children following diminished health and increased need. For this group, current support and expectations of considerable future support from family were integral to coping and wellbeing in widowhood. Fears around their increasing age, frailty and declining health were commonplace. Following network shrinkage, children’s support often contributed to residing independently in the community in older age. Children somewhat mitigated the pain of bereavement by providing this group with stability at an otherwise challenging time where they lacked the spousal support they had typically received during marriage. One woman, widowed for 32 years, said: “My children are my life. If I didn’t have my children, I would have gone crazy … But they call me … one phone call is life to me.”

Support expectations
Normative Greek cultural values and beliefs influenced support expectations among this group. Support was preferred and expected from children. Many assumed their children had an innate responsibility to support them over the life-course, but especially in older age and widowhood. Expectations were often so entrenched that individuals perceived them as natural rather than culturally developed. An 88-year-old man, widowed for three years, said: “I always felt I owed something to my family … I’ve done a lot for my family … If you were to ask my boys … they feel exactly the same … I am not demanding, I only want to see them from time to time … it’s inbuilt. We were born with it … that affection for family.” Many perceived cross-cultural differences with respect to familial relations and support. They often compared and contrasted their own families with Anglo families, perceiving Greek families to be comparatively closer and cohesive.

Barriers to familial support
Some expected more support than they currently received. Barriers to receiving support included residential location, competing familial and work responsibilities, and children’s acculturation to Anglo society. Support expectations often weighed down differentially on children, with some subject to higher expectations. Though some eldest children assumed more responsibility than younger siblings, increased pressure and expectations were often placed on children who resided closer, or who individuals had better relationships with. Children residing elsewhere represented a major barrier for rural residents with limited or no access to private or public transport. Those who lived geographically further from family sensed that they were missing out on the familial closeness others possessed. For those who perceived that they lacked support, feelings of isolation, disappointment, or unhappiness often ensued, especially when they felt they received less support than their peers.

Familial reciprocity
In line with cultural obligations, notions of familial reciprocity (i.e. giving and receiving support) were important to Greek migrants. An 83-year-old rural woman, widowed for 18 years, stated: “I don’t know about Australians, but the majority [of Greeks] help their children. And their children help their parents in return … We support our children, and our children support us.” Many felt they could rely upon their children’s assistance in older age, as they had supported their children in earlier years. Related to reciprocity were notions of parental sacrifice for their children, which were evoked to justify later-life support expectations. Petros, aged 82 and widowed for nine years said: “Kids need to look after their parents … they look after me … like I looked after them. I worked and supported them … four children left home to study, think about what we sacrificed and what we still sacrifice with our grandkids. Well, it works both ways.” Similarly, Katerina, aged 77 and widowed for 32 years relayed: “All parents make big sacrifices for our children … this makes us happy … That’s why kids need to respect their parents … They need to look after them, that’s the most important thing. They need to love them … The years go by quickly and we’ll leave this life.” Guilt and moral obligations were often tied to strong familial support expectations.

Living arrangements, and the independence paradox
Consistent with retaining independence, most were proud of living independently. Loss of independence was generally viewed negatively, and many claimed they did not wish to rely heavily upon or burden others. A 71-year-old woman, widowed for 13 years, explained: “Not in the same house, because it’s a bit hard to live with them. It’s good to go and help them, but not to … stay there. I wouldn’t want them to come and live in my house. I want to be by myself … wake by myself, but to be close to them.” In line with ABS data, some Greek migrants co-resided with their children. Paradoxically, while most claimed they wanted to age independently, they were highly dependent on their children for support, English language, navigating formal services, social interaction, housework, home maintenance, managing finances and transport. Most had never questioned their familial dependence, or indeed even considered it ‘dependence’ as such. Those who were reliant on late spouses, were often similarly dependent on children for informal support. Such dependence thwarted opportunities to grow or undertake new, potentially positive experiences or responsibilities in widowhood.

Social isolation and exclusion
For many older adults, both widowhood and older age can shrink social networks. For older non-English speaking migrants, social exclusion from mainstream, English speaking society, is often a reality. Due to widowhood, social isolation and exclusion was rife among this group, especially in rural areas, due to added geographic and transport barriers. One man stated: “Not only that you lose yourself, but you also lose your language … To be here from morning until night, and not have said a word … I sit on the chair outside for most of the day, look at the garden, the birds. I don’t have anyone to talk to … I see, but I don’t talk. That’s why widowhood is a big drama … [life] has changed…”. Indeed, most interviewees alluded to their children comprising their entire social networks.

Socialising in widowhood
Socialising represents an important aspect of social support and inclusion. This group valued socialising, highlighting several benefits including keeping busy, combating isolation, and relieving stress. Margarita, age 85, widowed for two years explained: “It’s good because you are distracted from thinking for a bit … I feel a bit better when I talk to people.” Being widowed is somewhat stigmatising for older Greeks, impacting on their ability and willingness to socialise. Indeed, socialising with children was considered more appropriate than with others. In widowhood specifically, houses ‘closed’ or ‘shut off’. An 84-year-old woman, widowed for 12 years, explained: “My house used to be open … Many couples would visit … Since my husband died, that was it. No one stepped foot in my house.” Many assumed declines in socialising simply represented their lived reality as an older widowed adult. Widows often felt that losing a spouse hindered their ability to socialise with others. Some widowers attributed social declines to gender, as their wives had primarily organised social contact or cooked for guests.

Perceived community stigma and gossip
Many widowed Greek migrants feel further excluded in Australia as widows and widowers, due to cultural norms and expectations dictating the inappropriateness of, or stigma around socialising in certain contexts following widowhood. This is particularly the case where couples, or individuals of the opposite gender are concerned, in addition to certain social situations. There was a sense that Greek widows or widowers who chose to socialise would be stigmatised or judged by others. Fear of being subject to gossip within the Greek community was a strict normative consideration. Some actively curtailed their socialising to counter gaining a negative reputation within the community. Threat of gossip functioned as a mechanism of social control, whereby maintaining good reputations as older, widowed adults protected their individual and familial names from community disapproval or shaming. Many rural women engaged in constant efforts to maintain their reputation, honour, and prestige within the community. There were strict notions of navigating widowhood appropriately in Greek culture, especially for women.

For this group of first-generation Greek men and women, widowhood impacted health and well-being in later life. Support from their children often helped to fill the void of spousal loss. Older migrants without biological children, or who lack supportive familial relationships, may find themselves increasingly isolated and ageing in a country which remains ‘foreign’, even decades post-migration. As widowed women typically live longer than men, they may require increased support for lengthier periods of time.

Dr Georgia Rowley is a research associate at Flinders University interested in qualitative social gerontology, particularly with groups routinely excluded from academic research due to cultural and linguistic barriers.

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