SFU talk explores the changing profile of aging families in Canada: Karen Kobayashi discusses importance of demographic shifts and diversity for public policy

In honour of her mentor and renowned sociologist Ellen Gee, professor Karen Kobayashi will deliver the 12th Annual Ellen M. Gee Memorial Lecture at her alma mater, Simon Fraser University, on the changing profile of aging families in Canada and the implications for social and health policies. In her talk, titled “The Changing Profile of Aging Families in Canada: Why Demographic Shifts in Immigration and Ethnic Diversity Matter,” Kobayashi will share findings from her 12-plus years of research on family, aging, health and social policy on Nov. 21 at Blusson Hall.

Karen Kobayashi and son.

Karen Kobayashi and son.

Kobayashi is an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Victoria and is a research affiliate with the Centre on Aging. According to her research, the contemporary profile of Canadian families has changed drastically over the past 20 years. Demographic shifts such as increases in immigration and ethnic diversity in the older adult population have altered the definition of family. She remarks that Canadian families in the 21st century are extremely plural.

“There is no one traditional family anymore, which is the family from the 1950s with an earner husband, a homemaker wife and children,” explains Kobayashi.

Her research indicates an increasing shift towards interracial marriages and intergenerational families. Inter-religious, inter-class and same-sex marriages are also more prevalent due to recent legislative changes.

Not all of the trends Kobayashi observes are due to an influx of people from other countries. She also sees a change in gender dynamics. One of the most interesting trends for Kobayashi is the increasing number of older couples in committed relationships who prefer not to live in the same household.

“This has become a really interesting phenomenon for older Canadians, as they become divorced, separated or widowed. They don’t want to share a household in later life. It is mainly older women who are driving this because they want to maintain independence and don’t want to assume or reassume the role of a caregiver,” she says.

Problems looming for health and social policies

Shifts in family life hold implications for social and health policies in implementation and practice. Kobayashi found that older ethnic minority immigrant women face the most barriers in accessing health care. She explains that the widening gap in income equality, the lack of universal childcare and an increase in the number of single-parent households make women the most vulnerable, and they bear the brunt of these social issues.

“They are more hesitant to talk to health or social care providers due to differences in norms, values and belief systems. They can’t find providers who have congruent or appropriate understanding of their situation in terms of care,” says Kobayashi.

Kobayashi wants to raise and address these concerns in her work by examining discrimination and how it impacts health and social wellbeing.

“In a country where there is universal health care, there are definitely still issues of access because of cultural divides. We have to start to address issues on the intersection of class, ethnicity and gender,” she says.

Honouring her mentor’s work

Ellen Gee sat as the chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology for six years and served as the Associate Dean for four years at SFU. She had over 100 publications in the areas of demography, sociology of aging, sociology of families and Canadian social policy. She passed away on Nov. 3, 2003.

Kobayashi, who studied under Gee in the 1990s, sees her research as an extension of Gee’s work.

“I was Ellen Gee’s first PhD student. The lecture is in memory of her. This is really poignant for me because at this stage in my career, I have a research program that would be able to speak to how her incredible mentorship has helped me to further my academic and career trajectory,” Kobayashi says.

Kobayashi’s presentation is expected to draw a diverse audience of graduate students, policy professionals, service providers and members of the general public.

The 12th Annual Ellen M. Gee Memorial Lecture will be held at SFU-HC, in Room BLU 10921, from 4:00 p.m.

For more information, visit http://www.sfu.ca/grc/ellen/11th_egml/12th_egml/