Older Latinos Redefine Family to Include Friends, Neighbors, Other Community Members

Coexisting harmoniously with the people around them is a priority for aging Latinos, who redefine friends, neighbors and community members as family, according to new research led by social work professor Lissette Piedra of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Latinos view the support of friends, neighbors and other community members as so vital to their well-being in later life that they redefine these relationships as family, researchers say in a new study that explored older Latinos’ perspectives on positive aging.

This redefinition of social relationships in old age, called “convivir,” which means to coexist, emphasizes harmonious connections with family and other community members. An important cultural value among Latinos, convivir embodies a broader definition of family than understood in prior research, said Lissette M. Piedra, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the first author of the study.

“Much of the research on positive aging for Latinos focused on the influential cultural value ‘familisimo,’ which underscores the importance of family connections,” Piedra said.

“Convivir is much broader and encompasses familial as well as relationships with friends, neighbors and other community members. Both values are equally important to older Latinos and could be leveraged to enhance their quality of life and promote successful aging.”

Although Latinos tend to live longer than non-Latino whites, they also experience a marked decline in quality of life and serious functional limitations. Understanding how older Latinos view successful aging is critical to developing programs that enhance their health and quality of life, according to the study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology.

Supported by the nonprofit Mather Institute on Aging, the study was co-written by senior research scientist Melissa J.K. Howe, of NORC at the University of Chicago; John W. Ridings, the institutional researcher of the Institute for Clinical Social Work, St. Augustine College; health program officer Yadira Montoya, of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation; and Kendon J. Conrad, a U. of I. professor emeritus at Chicago’s Division of Health Policy and Administration.

Piedra’s team asked people who worked with older Latinos in various capacities to recruit community-dwelling Latinos age 60 or older to participate in monthly focus groups that discussed and surveyed participants on aging successfully. More than half of these community workers identified as Latinos, and slightly less than half of them spoke Spanish.

Community workers from seven different agencies held and moderated a total of nine focus groups in Spanish or English. More than 100 residents – more than half age 70 or older – participated in the groups. The majority, 72%, were women, and 81% were immigrants.

The community workers used a data collection and analysis tool, concept mapping – which illustrates the relationships among ideas from diverse groups and which of these ideas they prioritize – to sort and rank the beliefs that arose in the focus groups.

Piedra said this technique, which her team used in a prior study, enables people without a background in statistics to understand and interpret data. The ideas that emerged in the groups were grouped into four major themes, one of these being convivir, which emphasizes cooperative coexistence with others in the family and the larger community.

The remaining themes included self-sufficiency, a multidimensional set of values that encompasses financial stability, spiritual growth and romantic partnerships; perspectives on life, such as being mentally active, taking one’s time and promoting calmness; and healthy behaviors that promote physical well-being.

There was little variability in the rankings of the various concepts, an unusual finding in this type of research, according to the study. The team said that finding might be associated with the homogeneity of participants’ geographical location and income. Another limitation of the project was that it showed how highly participants valued the ideas mentioned, but not whether they practiced these values or the difficulty involved in doing so.

“Cooperative coexistence may be a behavioral ideal or adaptive approach associated with the prevalence of multigenerational households in Latino communities,” Piedra said. “More work is needed to identify additional latent and manifest instantiations of convivir. But it provides an innovative angle to build theory and test hypotheses related to the positive aging of people in this demographic group.”

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