The process by which emotionally close and supportive relationships between individuals not related through blood or legal ties are interpreted as being “like family” by those individuals; this can include shifts in identities. In critical gerontology, the broader ideal of fictive kin relationships between older clients and care workers, invoked by organizations to market their services.
Drawn from family social science scholarship, in gerontology, the fictive kin concept acknowledges the important contributions of nonkin support for older adults without robust, traditionally defined family networks (Jordan-Marsh and Harden 2005; Macrae 1992). More specifically, the term signifies a shift in the meaning of particular relationships by one or both parties. Older adults often use kin terms to reframe supportive relationships involving friends and other nonkin (Barker 2002; Macrae 1992). For instance, in a study of Dutch persons (Voorpostel 2013), older adults – especially those who were widowed, divorced, or never married – were more likely than younger adults to include a nonrelative as part of their defined family. Allen et al. (2011) identified this process of “converting” nonkin to kin as a form of agency that helps older adults adapt to changing networks as well as bolster a sense of mutual support and closeness with others.
Fictive kin relationships may be particularly important for older gay and lesbian persons isolated from traditional family support (Barranti and Cohen 2000; Brotman et al. 2003); however, the role of fictive kin is often unrecognized within health and social service systems. Fictive kin relationships might also develop between step-parents acquired by adult children (e.g., where there are no legal ties); factors precipitating this process (e.g., frequency of interaction) were examined by Ganong et al. (2017). In broader sociological family scholarship, however, fictive kin terminology has been critiqued for its tendency to be applied to the study of ethnic minority populations, perpetuating a largely unfounded assumption that fictive kin processes are more common in these groups (Nelson 2014).
Paid care workers can also become interpreted as fictive kin by older clients. This can facilitate the social integration of workers into clients’ private households and be a way for older adults to become more comfortable with formal help (Karner 1998). In one study of Taiwanese and Hong Kong immigrant families in California, Lan (2002) explained how the fictive kin process supports the commodification of care for older adults when adult children become less able to provide family care yet want to maintain the cultural ideal. However, although paid care workers often value family-like relationships with their clients, and such interpretations can promote good care, there is concern that these relationships can inadvertently exploit low wage, often racialized and/or migrant female care workers (Dodson and Zincavage 2007; Karner 1998; Johnson 2015). Workers might feel compelled to go above and beyond to contribute unpaid work, or be less likely to report workplace violence (Johnson 2015; Outcalt 2013). Moreover, many workers wish to maintain boundaries in their relationships with clients (Daly and Armstrong 2016; Piercy 2000).
Future Directions of Research
The fictive kin concept could be explored in intimate partnerships in which older adults “live apart together” (Funk and Kobayashi 2016) as well as among older residents in intentional co-housing communities. The potential for and implications of fictive kin relationships between older adults and different kinds of care workers (e.g., paid companions, volunteers) could be explored, as well as how these ideals are used by organizations to promote emotional labor among their staff.
The fictive kin concept highlights the role and importance of nontraditional forms of informal support and care for older adults who lack traditionally defined sources of family support. The concept also offers insights into the complex subjective processes involved in “constructing” family as well as potential antecedents and outcomes of these processes. Lastly, critical gerontologists have used the term to expose how close relationships with older clients, alongside organizational imperatives for emotional labor, can disadvantage paid care workers.
- Barranti C, Cohen H (2000) Lesbian and gay elders: an invisible minority. In: Schneider R, Kropt N, Kisor A (eds) Gerontological social work: knowledge, service settings and special populations, 2nd edn. Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, Belmont, pp 343–367Google Scholar