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Intergenerational exchange and the possibilities of role substitution for older people

Joanna Macfarlane (Clinical Psychologist, practising in Primary Mental Healthcare, Auckland, New Zealand)
Christine Stephens (School of Psychology, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand)
Joanne Taylor (School of Psychology, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand)

Quality in Ageing and Older Adults

ISSN: 1471-7794

Article publication date: 21 October 2019

Issue publication date: 21 October 2019




Role loss or substitution are common experiences of older adults, and a role typically held by older people – great grandparent or grandparent – is now under threat. Set within the context of a retirement village where an Intergenerational Programme (IGP) was taking place, the purpose of this paper is to understand older people’s perspectives on preschool-aged children, and the roles they adopt with them.


The authors conducted semi-structured interviews and analysed the data using narrative analysis (n=19).


Four narratives were identified, revealing that older adults adopt the roles of teacher and compromiser when interacting with children, believe they are “plugging a gap” in society through their involvement with younger generations and are reminded of life when with them.

Research limitations/implications

The study does not feature the voice of younger children within intergenerational contact; information which would have provided a different perspective on the roles identified.

Social implications

The bulk of global IGP practice is targeted at bringing together older and younger people who are not as young as preschool age, but this may be an opportunity missed. Retirement village operators may also want to consider intergenerational activity with preschool-aged children as a way for them to provide opportunities for role substitution within this environment.


The findings identify a positive perception older people have about young children in today’s society, expanding on very limited literature. How older adults perceive their role with young children is also identified within this research, highlighting how interacting with non-related preschoolers can provide some older people with a substitute role in later years.



Macfarlane, J., Stephens, C. and Taylor, J. (2019), "Intergenerational exchange and the possibilities of role substitution for older people", Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, Vol. 20 No. 3, pp. 98-109.



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