Which came first, community or care? Observations of informal care among the elderly

Taru Silvonen

Communities are often depicted as sources of various social resources from social capital to social support and informal care. Yet, social resources do not grow out of nothing and require communal settings where they can prosper. This blog examines the provision of informal care among older citizens in a community centre in Mexico City.

While the empirical analysis below is drawn from Mexico, it is worth noting initially that many countries have aging populations. Evidence from the UK suggests that in addition to associated physical symptoms, older people also often experience loneliness. This applies both to those living independently and those living in purpose-built communities for the elderly. Research initiatives, such as the befriending programme between the elderly and children brought to public attention by Channel 4, show the positive impact of social interaction on the physical and mental health of pensioners living in a care community.

Despite many schemes where volunteers or paid staff offer support and friendship to the elderly, the viability of informal community support has been weakening following Governmental budget cuts affecting community services. Shrinking local government funds have also meant cuts to council-run public health services, including many preventative services. This makes it challenging for community-based care to evolve, despite the increasing demand for it. This is despite the fact that creating a sense of community seems the first step to creating spaces of and for care.

These issues have a generalised international character, but play out differently in different places. It is against this backdrop that I spent time at two local community centres in a disadvantaged neighbourhood when researching informal social networks in Mexico City for my PhD in 2016-2017.

These community centres became my research hubs, places where I could have informal chats with local residents and build relationships with people. Knowing Iztapalapa – the most densely populated borough in Mexico City – had a large youth population, I was surprised to see that alongside graffiti workshops, drawing classes and boxing clubs available for teenagers, the community centres offered many activities for pensioners.

A group led by Doña Sonya (a woman in her late 60s who had lived in the neighbourhood since the 1970s, name changed) met Tuesdays and Thursdays before midday. Between 15 and 30 people aged 60-82 sat along several long tables. Within 15 minutes the room was full of chatter and laughter as the group – mostly women – greeted each other exchanging hugs and kisses. The day started with a ‘bring and share’ breakfast where food was exchanged, while the group caught up. Formally, the purpose of the group was to do simple handicrafts using recycled materials, but by the time the activity leader turned up the pensioners were immersed in their conversations, making the craft activities a secondary activity.

It took a while before I felt part of the group, but once I did the group offered a warm and caring environment. With time the pensioners got used to my presence and started to include me in their conversations. In addition to sharing food, the pensioners discussed day-to-day life such as what they planned to cook for the family, or swapping stories about their youth. At times the conversation turned to incidents such as burglaries that had happened in the neighbourhood, family issues, or personal health. One of the older women asked me how I thought she was doing, explaining that she struggled with depression in addition to visible mobility issues. The group was a setting for discussing what its members felt was necessary at the time, whether that was to lighten up the mood, share everyday vignettes, or to ask advice with matters such as applying for formal support from the borough.

As is the case in any social group, some of the pensioners clearly had closer relationships to some than to others. The closer friends felt more comfortable asking each other for advice or favours such as going to the doctor together. Yet, there was a sense of companionship throughout the group. It was a place for giving and receiving but most of all sharing within means, whether that was emotional or material resources like food or small amounts of money.

I found the strong bonds and companionship within the group remarkable. One of the women emphasised the revitalising power of chatting with people of similar age: “Coming to the group is like escaping everyday life. To talk about whatever… things that are going on at home but also to just play and chat and joke like we did when we were younger” (Josefa, interview, 22/11/2016). As the activities finished, people often stayed for longer, continuing their conversations before eventually returning home and to daily responsibilities.

As I got to know the pensioners, I found out that many of them had known each other for over 30 years; the community centre only opened in 2012, but Doña Sonya and many of the women used to meet to do handicrafts at each others’ houses long before that. The women had gotten to know each other through the joint efforts to improve the neighbourhood, which was just vast fields when the first urban residents arrived to build their homes in the 1970s. Building a liveable neighbourhood together required years of collaboration, which in some cases led to the formation of strong social ties and friendship between neighbours.

The community centre was managed by the borough, who also sent activity leaders to teach the pensioners how to make decorations and other crafts mostly from recycled materials. On one hand, the group activities were meetings of glue sticks, colourful cartons, and scissors; the borough provided the activities and the space. But on the other it was the pensioners who brought the warmth and the compassion. While providing companionship perhaps was the aim of the group activities, the strong social ties enabled the provision of informal care and support that extended beyond the community centre.

Doña Sonya’s group was an interesting example of how ‘communities’ can provide different types of informal care, underpinned by strong social ties. Relying upon others widens out the possibility for others to do so;  social ties and associations strengthen in the process. While many of the pensioners emphasised their independence when it came to certain matters such as personal finances, the willingness to let their guard down to provide and receive social support when needed was invaluable.

A setting where people can come together, and – with time – build relationships is one that provides a basis for caring. In other words, before asking how communities can provide care, we need to ask how can the types of social settings be created where people care about each other. Once the social ties have been formed enabling companionship, other things such as informal care can follow. The key to building community capacity lies in the interactions people take part in, whether they take place in care homes, community centres in other public places or individuals’ homes.

While policymakers seem keen to shift caring responsibilities away from institutions, resources are not being directed to community centres or other community spaces where social ties and caring communities could be strengthened. Caring communities need opportunities to develop and spaces for regular interactions to evolve into caring ties. Coffee mornings and lunch clubs can be sites for the kind of supportive relationships I came across at the community centre in Mexico City. The relationship between community and care is complex, but a sense of community surely comes before community care.

Taru Silvonen has recently completed her PhD at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. She focuses on social networks, social support and social cohesion in urban settings. Her doctoral research explored the relationship between social networks and urban development in an irregular settlement in Mexico City.

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