Migration, Aging, and Digital Kinning

The Role of Distant Care Support Networks in Experiences of Aging Well

Loretta Baldassar, PhD; Raelene Wilding, PhD


Gerontologist. 2020;60(2):313-321. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Background and Objectives: High rates of migration contribute to the dispersal of support networks across distance. For older adults reliant on informal care, this creates a high risk of increased social isolation. In this article, we highlight the role of communication technologies in maintaining support networks and identities across distance. Building on transnational family research and on anthropological notions of "kinning," we propose that processes of distant support can be better understood through the new concept of "digital kinning."

Research Design and Methods: A qualitative project conducted in Australia (2016–2019) with over 150 older migrants (55+) born in nine countries comprising ethnographic interviews and observations. Analysis comprised the inductive approach of ethnographic qualitative research and theory building from cases, drawn from grounded theory traditions. Select ethnographic cases illustrate the key dimensions and benefits of "digital kinning" for older migrants.

Results: Digital kinning practices support the access of older migrants to (i) essential sources of social connection and support, (ii) maintenance of cultural identity, and (iii) protection of social identity, including across distance. Their effectiveness is reliant on access to affordable and reliable digital communication tools.

Discussion and Implications: Although essential to the well-being of older migrants, distant support networks and the digital kinning practices that sustain them receive little attention from policy makers and health practitioners. Organizations concerned with the care of older people must improve awareness of distant support networks by supporting practices of "digital kinning," ranging from including distant kin in health care plans to prioritizing digital inclusion initiatives.


It is now well understood that social networks of care and support are fundamental to health and well-being, particularly as people age and become increasingly dependent on others for support (e.g., Deindl, Brandt, & Hank, 2016; Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010; Rafnsson, Shankar, & Steptoe, 2015). Much of the recent policy and practice concerning aging, including the WHO Age Friendly initiatives, acknowledge the importance of maintaining social networks (WHO, 2015). Not surprisingly, these policies and related literatures tend to emphasize the role of local and proximate support networks (Kwan, 2013). For example, public health research has highlighted how neighborhoods and social contexts are influential in individuals' health behaviors and well-being over time (e.g., Diez Roux & Mair, 2010; Kawachi & Berkman, 2003; Meijer, Röhl, Bloomfield, & Grittner, 2012). However, with increasing rates of migration and mobility, there is a higher probability of the dispersal of family and support networks. Unfortunately, little is known about how experiences of aging and social support are being transformed by this dispersal.

Most research investigating the impact of migration on support networks is in migration studies, which demonstrates that migration motivates people to engage in "transnational care" or "caring across distance" (e.g., Baldassar, Baldock, & Wilding, 2007; Zechner, 2008). Caring across distance is the result of three recent and intersecting transformations: the intensification and diversification of migration and mobility, rapid global population aging, and the development of new communication technologies (Wilding & Baldassar, 2018). Each of these phenomena has been investigated separately. However, their intersections remain relatively unexamined. In this article, we report findings from a large qualitative study conducted in Australia, which explores the intersection of these social transformations to examine the impact of the dispersal of support networks on older people's experiences of health and well-being.

The well-being of older migrants has become a particular cause for concern, not least given their growing number. In Australia, in 2016, 25% of the population was born overseas, including 37% of people aged 65 or over (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017), with the (mostly) Southern-European born recording the highest median age, at 59 years. A recent Australian review (Federation of Community Councils in Australia [FECCA], 2015) surveying existing knowledge of the health and well-being of older migrants found that many "have higher levels of disadvantage and other risk factors than older Anglo-Australians" (FECCA, 2015, p. 4). Older migrants tend to access services at lower rates and at a later stage of illness, resulting in poorer health outcomes. A number of factors contribute to this problem, including migration history, access to culturally appropriate services and stigma associated with conditions such as dementia, leading to delayed diagnosis. Language is also a significant factor, with English language competence long identified as a prerequisite for accessing health-related information and services effectively. As a result of these difficulties, many older migrants in Australia rely heavily on their adult children to access services. However, these children receive relatively little support to manage the resulting care burden (FECCA, 2015).

One dimension of the well-being of older migrants that rarely receives attention in policy circles is the important role played by support network members who are living at a distance. Although a recent review of transnationalism and health demonstrates that health practices and behaviors are influenced by transnational contexts (Villa-Torres et al., 2017), the role of distant support networks (in particular, the role of geographically dispersed family and community members) and their impact on the health and well-being of older adults have largely been overlooked in the health sciences.