The term kin refers to one's relatives or one's family. The nuclear family consists of parents and dependent children (a structure often complicated today by divorce and remarriage). Families become more complex when children reach adulthood, marry, and have children; they then include children-in-law and parents-in-law, grandchildren and grandparents. Sisters and brothers grow up to be aunts and uncles to each others' children (i.e., their nieces and nephews). All these relatives comprise an individual's kin, or members of one's extended family, as opposed to one's nuclear family. In some families there are people who are not actually blood relatives, but who are considered to be so close that they are like family members. Scholars have called such people fictive kin. Some scholars refer to our North American kinship system as a modified extended family system. This term is meant to capture the fact that family relationships and obligations extend well beyond the nuclear family household, but also that the emphasis is on intergenerational ties linking parents, children, and grandchildren. The extent to which other types of ties, such as those to siblings and to aunts, uncles, and cousins, are emphasized is more open to individual choice.
In North America, our kinship system is bilateral ; that is, both one's mother's side of the family and one's father's side of the family are considered to be equal in terms of rights and obligations. In practice, however, there is a tendency in both the United States and Canada for kinship relations to be stronger among women than men, with the mother-daughter tie being the strongest of all. As a result of this greater closeness and involvement between female kin, and especially mothers and daughters, our kinship system often tends to emphasize the mother's side of the family. Young families often have more contact with the wife's parents and siblings than they do with the husband's side of the family. As a result, grandchildren tend to see more of their maternal grandparents and to feel closer to them. This pattern is modified, however, by the nature of the relationship between fathers and their parents; when closeness and involvement are high, grandchildren have close relationships with paternal grandparents and the matrilineal bias decreases or disappears.
The importance of maintenance of kin ties
Despite many changes that have come with modernization, urbanization, and industrialization, the family remains a fundamental basis of social organization and a vitally important part of life for individuals of all ages. Kinship ties are important to older adults for a number of reasons. Family members are usually the first ones to whom people turn when they need help, whether this be emotional support (someone to confide in or to make you feel better when things get you down), practical help (someone to take care of you when you are ill, to help with home maintenance and repairs), or advice. At a more symbolic level, the family provides people with a sense of belonging and a sense of personal history. Families often have special rituals that are passed down through generations (Rosenthal and Marshall). Family reunions bring widely scattered kin together.
As individuals move through adult life—as they get jobs, marry, have children, and perhaps move to a different geographic area—staying in contact with kin may prove difficult, and families may have a sense that they are drifting apart. To counter this, individuals make their own efforts to keep in touch with relatives, but, in addition, many families have someone who takes on the challenge of keeping the various family members in touch with one another. The kinkeeper maintains communication links with and among family members through telephoning, writing letters, visiting, and holding family gatherings (Rosenthal). Family kinkeepers are most commonly female, and are typically in late middle age.
While kin relationships are important to people at all stages of the life course, they may be especially important to older adults. Kin, especially adult children, are a major source of help for older adults, particularly those who are widowed. Ties with siblings may become more important than they were in mid-life, providing opportunities to reminisce about the distant past. Grandchildren provide a focus for enjoyment and for a sense of passing on a legacy. Older people also derive meaning and purpose from the contributions they make to the lives of their children and grandchildren. In old age, the caregiving efforts of adult children may help elderly adults in poor health remain living in the community, rather than in nursing homes.
Demographic changes affecting the supply of kin
Two demographic trends over the twentieth century, increases in life expectancy and decreases in fertility, have major implications for the number and type of relatives in individuals' kinship networks, as well as for the nature of kin relationships (Bengtson, Rosenthal, and Burton; Uhlenberg). With each successive birth cohort, a higher proportion of people survive to old age, and the duration of time spent in old age is increasing as well. As a result, middle-aged adults may have more older relatives in their kinship networks than was true in the past. As well, kin relationships extend over a longer period of time than they did in the past. For example, many grandparents now live into their grandchildren's adulthood.
Fertility is a key factor affecting the supply of kin. The number of children one has will, obviously, determine family size in later life, and whether one has many, few, or no children to whom to turn for help and emotional support. It will determine, as well, whether one has many, few, or no grandchildren. The number of children one's parents had determines whether one has many, few, or no siblings, as well as whether, in adult life, one will have siblings-in-law, nieces, and nephews. As older relatives—parents, aunts, and uncles—die, individuals with siblings will still have kin beyond their own children and grandchildren, and will thus have a larger kinship network than individuals who have no siblings. The birth rate declined considerably over the twentieth century. However, while the average number of children has declined, the key decline has been in the proportion of women having very large families (five or six children or more). There has been a corresponding increase in the proportion of women having two or three children. Peter Uhlenberg argues that, if we are concerned about the potential support to older parents, the important distinction is between having no children or only one child and having two or more. People now in old age and those who will enter old age in the near future will have two or more children, on average. This means that most middle-aged adults will have siblings as part of their kin group. In the more distant future, as baby boomers enter old age, the percentage of older people with one or no children will increase, although rates of childlessness among the old will still be lower than they were in 1990.
Other determinants of kin ties
A number of other factors, in addition to fertility and longevity, influence the availability, nature, and quality of kin ties in later life. These include gender, marital status, parent status, grandparent status, geographic proximity, sibling network, and ethnocultural background. Sexual orientation is an additional factor to consider.
Gender. In general, women have more active ties with family than do men. Women's roles as carers and nurturers in families extend over the life course—caring for children and spouses, for older parents, and for other older relatives. Since women's life expectancy is greater than men's, women's kin ties have a longer duration than do men's and women are much more likely than men to experience widowhood and to live out a period at the end of life without a spouse. For these widowed women in particular, ties to adult children and siblings (as well as to friends) can be especially important sources of companionship and support.
Marital status. Marital status is another factor affecting kin ties. While most older adults are married, the likelihood of being married decreases with age, and gender differences in marital status are quite dramatic. Most men have wives in later life and, in the event of health declines, can depend on wives for care. As a result, men are much less likely than are women to spend time near the end of their lives in a nursing home or other long-term care facility. In contrast, the vast majority of women become widows in later life.
About 5 to 7 percent of older adults have never married. This percentage has remained relatively constant over the past several decades. Historically, and for current older adults, the never married also tend to be childless. While they lack the opportunity, therefore, to have relationships with children, they often develop close relationships with parents, siblings, or other relatives. They also may form close ties to nieces and nephews (Rubinstein). Friends may also occupy an important place in their support networks. The never married in later life tend to have smaller support networks than those who are married or widowed, but this is due to having fewer kin ties (that is, those related to having a spouse and in-laws, children, and grandchildren). Never-married older adults, particularly women, tend to be satisfied with life and to report higher life satisfaction than widowed or divorced older adults. While most never-married adults are not isolated and alone in later life, never-married women have closer ties with family and friends than do their male counterparts, and in fact never married older men are often isolated from family. Many never-married older adults have developed unique networks of family members and friends that provide them with companionship and support in their later years.
Only a small percentage of those currently in later life have experienced divorce or are currently divorced. However, with increased rates of divorce in younger age groups, the percentage of divorced older adults is expected to increase in the future. Studies of divorced older adults find them to be more socially isolated, in poorer health, and more economically disadvantaged than the married or widowed (Uhlenberg, Cooney, and Boyd), and less satisfied with life than the never married. Being divorced in later life can mean less social activity, particularly for men whose wife usually performed the kinkeeper role in the family. It can also mean more economic difficulty, particularly for women. The likelihood of remarriage after divorce for older adults is low (as it is for widowed older adults), particularly for women.
Ties to family and friends may be disrupted by divorce. Divorced older women tend to have more supportive ties to siblings, children, and friends than do divorced men. Divorced older men, even those with children, often have few ties to family members. Divorce in later life has a significant impact not only on the older couple, but also on other family members, particularly adult children. Divorce affects long-held family celebrations and rituals, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays. These celebrations often become sensitive and stressful events within families, creating the need for the renegotiation of family holidays and traditions.
Children and grandchildren. The majority (about 80 percent) of older adults have surviving children. Parent-child relationships are discussed in some detail elsewhere in this volume. After the marital tie, the tie to adult children is the most central for older adults. As noted earlier, the mother-daughter tie is particularly strong among North American adults. Older adults have frequent contact with children and both give and receive support, with emotional support being the most common type of help. For widowed women who experience severe health declines, help from adult children (most often daughters) may be the major factor that enables the older mother to remain living in her own home rather than having to move to a nursing home.
Almost all (90 percent) of older adults who have children also have grandchildren. With greater longevity, this tie can exist for many years. Grandparents and grandchildren provide each other with love, affection, and emotional support. Grandparents can give grandchildren a sense of history and stability in the family, while grandchildren can provide grandparents with a sense of family continuity extending into the future. There is great diversity in the role of grandparents (Kornhaber). When grandchildren are young, the relationship between grandparent and grandchild is mediated by the parent (the middle generation). With a parent's divorce, the contact between grandparent and grandchild may be significantly altered. Generally, as grandchildren become older, the amount of contact with grandparents decreases. However, close ties with grandparents endure over time for many adult grandchildren, particularly with grandmothers (Cooney and Smith).
About one-fifth of older adults do not have children or grandchildren. As adult children are a primary source of support and assistance for older people, those who are without children can be disadvantaged in some respects. However, older adults who are childless, especially those who never married, tend to have close ties with siblings and supportive friendship networks. For childless older adults who are married, the spouse tends to be the first to be called upon for support, followed by siblings, friends, and other relatives.
Geographic proximity. Geographic proximity—how close or distant kin are—is important because proximity is related to the amount of contact family members have with one another, and to the amount of practical help they are able to give one another. Several scholars have noted the decreasing proximity of older people to their kin as a result of increasing geographic mobility over time. Others, however, have argued that this pattern has been overstated and that, in fact, mobility has declined in recent decades (Uhlenberg). In North America, about three-quarters of older people who have children live within twenty-five miles of at least one of their children, a proportion that has remained remarkably stable over the past four decades. Moreover, modern technology and transportation has made it easier for kin to maintain contact than was the case in the not very distant past.
Siblings. Sibling ties are, potentially, the family tie of longest duration, often lasting into late old age. Most older adults (about 80 percent) have surviving siblings, and, typically, will not experience the death of a sibling until late in life. Therefore, siblings can share life histories and experiences over the life course. Ties between adult siblings tend to consist of fewer obligations and to be more voluntary than ties to a spouse or children. Nonetheless, for many older adults, particularly those without a spouse or children, the sibling tie is an important source of social and emotional support.
Women tend to have closer and more active ties to siblings than do men (Campbell, Connidis, and Davies), and having a sister increases contact with siblings for both men and women. Marital status also can affect the sibling tie. Older single and widowed individuals, particularly those who are childless, tend to be closer to their siblings than do married individuals. Never-married older women are more socially connected to their siblings than never-married men. Divorced and never-married men have the least contact and social connection with siblings.
In general, the quality of the relationship established earlier in life endures over the life course. Sibling ties tend to loosen during early adulthood and mid-life (often because of other competing demands, such as those related to a spouse, children, and employment). However, sibling ties tend to become closer again in later life. The essential quality of the relationship, however, remains. That is, those relationships that have been close over time remain close, while more distant ties tend to remain somewhat distant. Siblings whose relationship is close and warm can provide companionship and help each other psychologically and in other ways when major life events occur. Siblings are less likely than a spouse and children to provide practical help. However, they are often valued as a potential source of support if the need should arise. Sibling ties in later life tend to be a more egalitarian tie than other primary kin relationships, sustained by choice for mutual companionship or friendship rather than out of obligation.
Cultural variability. The structure and meaning of family, as well as the roles and responsibilities within the family, differ from one cultural group to another. Ethno-cultural differences in kin ties influence the social support available in later life. Minority families may be more likely than majority (White) families to provide social support and assistance to family members (Silverstein and Waite). This support may be the result of stronger kin ties and stronger traditions of providing help to kin (Himes, Hogan, and Eggebeen). However, while culture no doubt plays an important role in shaping family relationships and behaviors, factors such as the needs of older parents, the availability of kin, economic assets, gender, geographic proximity, and family size also play a role.
The influence of ethnic culture within families in North America is thought to diminish over time as immigrants take on the values of mainstream culture and over successive generations. However, many people sustain their cultural beliefs and traditions, although factors such as women's increased participation in the labor force and children's geographic mobility can make it more difficult for families to meet what they see as their cultural obligations to their elders (Gelfand).
Older gays and lesbians. A definition of family often does not include lesbian and gay couples, although this is slowly changing. Older gay men and lesbians deal with similar issues and concerns as other older individuals and couples—income, health, the death of relatives and friends—but they also confront other unique difficulties (Fullmer). Like heterosexual adults, many lesbians and gay men are involved in long-term, committed relationships that provide them with love, support, and companionship. For those whose biological family is supportive of their sexual orientation, family ties are an important source of support in adulthood and later life. However, those who have not been accepted by their own family, or who have kept their sexual orientation hidden, often have a "chosen" family (consisting of friends, companions, and particular family members) that takes the place of traditional kin. Many older lesbians and gay men form strong supportive bonds with these individuals who fulfill the family role—as their "families of choice" (Fullmer).
Older adults with weak kinship ties
While most older adults are embedded in kinship networks, there is a minority who have weak ties. Those older adults who are most likely to have weak ties are those who have smaller kin networks, such as the divorced who are childless, particularly men, or the never married. Those who are older and without a spouse or children are most at risk for social isolation. Particularly vulnerable are unmarried childless women who are very old (age eighty-five and older) who have chronic illnesses or disabilities. These women are more likely than others to be institutionalized because they lack family members to provide support or assistance.
Carolyn Rosenthal Lori D. Campbell
See also Gay and Lesbian Aging; Gender; Intergenerational Exchanges; Parent-Child Relationship.
Bengtson, V. L.; Rosenthal, C. J.; and Burton, L. "Families and Aging: Diversity and Heterogeneity." In Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, 3d ed. Edited by Robert H. Binstock and Linda K. George. San Diego: Academic Press, 1990. Pages 263–287.
Campbell, L. D.; Connidis, I. A.; and Davies, L. "Sibling Ties in Later Life: A Social Network Analysis." Journal of Family Issues 20 (1999): 114–148.
Cooney, T. M., and Smith, L. A. "Young Adults' Relations with Grandparents Following Recent Parental Divorce." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 51B (1996): S91–S95.
Fullmer, E. M. "Challenging Biases Against Families of Older Gays and Lesbians." In Strengthening Aging Families: Diversity in Practice and Policy. Edited by G. S. Smith, S. S. Tobin, E. A. Robertson-Tchabo, and P. W. Power. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1995. Pages 99–119.
Gelfand, D. E. Aging and Ethnicity: Knowledge and Services. New York: Springer, 1994.
Himes, C. L.; Hogan, D. P.; and Eggebeen, D. J. "Living Arrangements of Minority Elders." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 51B (1996): S42–S48.
Kornhaber, A. Contemporary Grandparenting. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.
Rosenthal, C. J. "Kinkeeping in the Familial Division of Labor." Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (1985): 965–974.
Rosenthal, C. J., and Marshall, V. W. "Generational Transmission of Family Ritual." American Behavioral Scientist 31 (1988): 669–684.
Rubinstein, R. "Never Married as Social Type: Re-evaluating Some Images." The Gerontologist 27 (1987): 108–113.
Silverstein, M., and Waite, L. J. "Are Blacks More Likely than Whites to Receive and Provide Social Support in Middle and Old Age? Yes, No, and Maybe So." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 48 (1993): S212–S222.
Uhlenberg, P. "Demographic Change and Kin Relationships in Later Life." In Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Volume 13: Focus on Kinship, Aging, and Social Change. Edited by George L. Maddox and M. Powell Lawton. New York: Springer, 1993. Pages 219–238.
Uhlenberg, P.; Cooney, T.; and Boyd, R. "Divorce for Women after Midlife." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 45 (1990): S3–S11.
kin / kin/ • n. [treated as pl.] one's family and relations: he is expected to make a payment to his wife's kin. ∎ a natural class, group, or division of people, animals, plants, etc., with shared attributes or ancestry: the area is frequented by crinoids, kin of sea urchins.• adj. related: he was kin to the brothers.See also akin.DERIVATIVES: kin·less adj.
Hence kinsfolk XV,, kinship XIX, kinsman XII, kinswoman XIV.