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Source: Massey University

Members of Toa Pacific Inc, an advocacy organisation for Pasifika older people and their carers who will be part of the study

The study has received $599,000 over three years from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) and will involve some 50 families in South Auckland and Palmerston North. Drawing on psychology, social work and nursing, researchers will work with Massey students and youth leaders in Pacific communities to conduct the research with families recruited through Pacific churches and non-governmental organisations.

Dr Siautu Alefaio, from Massey’s School of Psychology, is leading the Pacific health-collective approach with colleagues Dr Tracie Mafileo and Dr Sione Vaka, with support from Professors Fiona Alpass and Christine Stephens of HART (Health and Ageing Research Team). 

Dr Alefaio says that traditionally caring for Pacific Matua is maintained by practices of intergenerational kinship care, often with extended family living under one roof. 

However, little is known about how this tradition is practised in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The impact of migration over the past 60 years, and changes to work and living arrangements for the Pacific diaspora means there are many challenges to be faced in maintaining this traditional style of elder care, she says. 

With the older population increasing and numbers rapidly growing over the next few decades, it is imperative that health, social agencies and policy-makers understand the dynamics and dilemmas that families are dealing with to ensure the right services, support and policies are in place, she says. 

Anecdotally, Dr Alefaio is aware it can be tough, as families juggle with the realities of long working hours or shift work, commuting, high housing and living costs, and the demands of education, which can compound and create tensions around caring for elders. Conflict and violence within families can occur over decisions of how best to care for elders with health problems and in need of high levels of care. 

Intergenerational care a blessing and strength

“On the flip side, we want to know how families are coping with informal care-giving, and what impact it’s having on people in a positive way,” she says. Many Pacific peoples view what would be considered a sacrifice in Palagi/Pākehā terms as a gift. In traditional Samoan culture, for instance, the concept of ‘Matua Tausi’ defines the practice of caring for and honouring elders, who are revered as keepers of wisdom, genealogical knowledge and a source of cultural sustenance at the heart and soul of the family.

The broader context for the study is understanding “the value and importance of Pacific Matua (Elders) in families, churches, and communities,” Dr Alefaio says. “They are not considered separate to one’s family and are the most respected individuals within aiga (family) given their valuable roles as advisors, holders of wisdom and traditional knowledge, protectors of family genealogy and healers of social issues.”

Caring for an elder bestows a special blessing – even teenagers opt out of school to take on the role, she explains. Likewise, elders can help care for younger children in the home to allow parents to work.

The researchers are also interested in finding out about housing needs and issues for extended families who care for their elders, as well as whether there are rest homes that provide for the cultural needs of Pacific peoples. 

The study will:

  • identify Pacific elder care practices that contribute to the health and wellbeing of Pacific elders and carers
  • examine the impact of cultural-contextual change on Pacific Matua care practices
  • detail the socio-cultural and material supports needed to sustain Pacific care practices.

The qualitative design of this study draws on culturally-appropriate methodologies for Pacific peoples, says Dr Alefaio, using Pacific language, metaphors and frame of reference (ways of knowing, being and doing). 

The study was announced in the latest round of Health Research Council funding, worth $55.56 million for 49 projects.