Adjust the text

Study: How Old Folks Help Keep ‘Em Down On the Farm


Forget the stereotype of needy old people. A Northern Ireland study has found farming families would fail today without support from older members.

Agriculture is key to industry in Northern Ireland with 80 per cent of the total land area being used for agriculture. Over the past decade, a slump in farming and outbreaks of BSE and Foot and Mouth Disease has hit the agricultural sector hard. Area farmers have seen their incomes fall by more than twice the national average.

More than half of the farmers today are over 55 years of age. They work on small parcels of land that have been in the family for generation. Farmers struggle to keep farm ownership in the family.

When Dr. Deirdre Heenan from the University of Ulster in Londonderry investigated farming families, she discovered the contributions made by older family members were critical to their survival.

The study findings were published in the Journal of Aging Studies (Vol. 24, 2010).


Heenan interviewed 65 people – 42 females and 23 males – from farming families in County Down. Participants ranged in age from 65 to 85. All were long-term residents of the community.

The report found older people staunch in their support of farming families. They were motivated by belief in family, the community and a sense of give and take.


Findings showed that family networks played a pivotal role in daily life. Indeed, participants viewed the family as the bedrock of farm life.

As one participant put it:

Farming depends on people pulling together and working as a unit. Your role within that unit changes as you get older, but it is still important. Generations here work together and they always have done.

Another woman explained:

I can’t get about in the way I used to but that doesn’t mean that I am useless. I am up at seven every morning and take the children to and from school. My children take me anywhere I want to go and get me whatever I need.


According to the study, participants described farm life as a matter of “give and take.”

The older men helped on the farm. They carried out repairs and offered advice on financial issues. Sons also did farm chores. Today many of the younger women worked in part-time jobs off the farm. They did the shopping and provided emotional support. They also cared for family members when they were ill.

The older women took care of the children. In fact, the lack of rural childcare and the increasing number of part-time jobs for women meant the vast majority of female participants provided some type of care. Three of the participants provided full-time care for their husbands, and 13 looked after grandchildren on a regular basis.

Older participants welcomed the opportunity to spend time with their grandchildren. As one participant explained:

Some of our ones would say to me, you shouldn’t be looking after children at your time of life, you have had your family. I don’t see it like that, I mean to say what else would I be doing? In some ways looking after grandchildren is better that looking after your own children. You have more time to enjoy them.

Another woman added, ” I do it to let my daughter out to work. If I didn’t it wouldn’t really be worth her while working. I don’t mind helping out and, to be honest, I enjoy spending time.”

As well, some of the participants prepared meals and took care of the house. Said one participant:

When my daughter comes home from work, she is usually exhausted. I have the dinner ready and the housework is done. It takes some of the pressure off her and means I have an important part in their lives.


The research also showed older people played a key role in fostering good relations with neighbours.

As one participant put it, “Good neighbours are like money in the bank, you always know they are there and you can call on them. As you get older that becomes more important.”

Participants met up with their friends and neighbours at weekly church services and other church-related activities.

Perhaps surprisingly, few participants belonged to formal organizations and few attended social events. They seldom sought help from voluntary organizations. Participants viewed government assistance as a last resort.

Older people undervalued

The findings suggest older people represent a substantial economic and social resource in rural communities, in contrast to prevalent perceptions. “Despite the fact that [older people] are often at the heart of the social structure in rural areas, they are depicted as a problem,” the author wrote.