Relatives of Dependent Elders and the Difficult Task to Employ a Migrant Care-giver

The rapid ageing of societies that has taken place during the last decades in several industrialised countries has fostered an intense academic debate across disciplines. Ageing has come to be seen as a process whose meaning is not intrinsic to people’s biological and health conditions, whilst it assumes a different meaning depending on the cultural, political and social context in which every one of its stages takes place. Not only the condition of the ageing care-receivers, but also those caring for them will be greatly influenced by socio-economic and cultural conditions.

In fact, in the aftermath of women’s emancipation and the crisis of welfare states, we observe conflicting tendencies within the political economy of care depending on the context. If on the one side, a more culturally accepted defamilialisation of care encourages people to discard caring responsibilities for their old relatives, on the other, States are not able to provide a fully publicly financed and provided assistance, especially at times of economic recession. What is rampant is the market commodification of care-work, at the condition of using cheap and flexible labour that in Europe is predominantly found amongst working-class and migrant women.

Migrant women’s employment in this sector is usually referred to as ‘international division of reproductive labour’, a scenario which is often characterised by inequality and labour exploitation. However, scholars have also pointed out the uniqueness of this labour sector for the intimacy that it conveys, due to the physicality of the care work, the privacy of the domestic setting in which it takes place, and the relevance of the interpersonal dimension it entails. It is also important to take a transformative view on this issue, by looking at the way the entrance of migrants into this sector has modified the traditional setting of family care provision in Europe. The increasing participation of migrants draws attention to the changes in the ‘culture of care’ (Vega Solís 2009), and to the gradual ethnicisation of caring skills and attitudes.

In my research I tried to look at these transformations from the perspective of employers. I have conducted interviews with 32 people, in Italy, who have a relative taken care of by migrant woman. The majority of the elderly was affected by dementia, especially due to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson or damage to the brain after a stroke, or to senility. Other care-receivers had a chronic illness as a consequence of cancer, heart disease, digestive problems, and so forth. Several of them had severely reduced mobility, spending their days in bed or a wheelchair, due to an injury (rupture of thigh-bone especially) or to their general condition. Yet, employers usually lived in the vicinity of their elderly relatives: in six instances the care-recipient lived in the same apartment of the interviewee, while in another seven instances they lived in a separate apartment which was however in the same house or compound as them.

This sample of employers was predominantly composed by women (26 out of 32), in line with a general feminisation of care-giving. This also corresponds to a feminisation in the group of care-receivers: 26 out of the 32 interviewees are responsible for the care of an elderly woman. It is also interesting that in the case of siblings, there is the tendency to a traditionally gendered distribution of tasks amongst them, with sisters doing everyday and physical tasks, and brothers the more detached organisational ones.

The decision to hire someone is situated in a very specific moment of employers’ lives during which they are sadly realising the passing away of their beloved, they are coping with their moral obligations to intergenerational care, as well as becoming aware of the distress that this situation is causing them. In addition, they have to find practical solutions that would allow their relatives to stay in their private homes while providing them the proper health and care assistance. Thus, the employment of a paid worker is usually described as a relief by interviewees. For many, it prevents them from damaging their own physical and mental health.

However, despite these often pragmatic views on the decision of delegate part of caring tasks to a paid worker, the organization of these jobs maintains strong emotional aspects and expectations based on the centrality of family bonds. Interviewees still claim to maintain an intimate connection with the care-recipient and see themselves as the best interpreters of their relatives’ desires. In fact, employers generally seem to wish a specific form of intimacy with their workers: they would like to find in them the allies that help them in recuperating the resilient capacities of their sick relatives, at the mental and physical level. Yet, employers ultimately portray themselves as the only ones that can actually assess the well-being of the care-recipients, rather than workers. This is especially so when the elderly are people with reduced mental capacities and thus the interpretation of their needs are more heavily put on the shoulders of their relatives. In conclusion, employers expect the workers to give shape to the gestures, small activities and caring attitudes that they themselves would make to hopefully improve the condition of their relatives.


Sabrina Marchetti, Ph.D

European University Institute, Florence


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