Between Care and Contract: Aging Muslim Immigrants, Self-appointed Helpers and Ambiguous Belonging in the Danish Welfare State




Care, Aging, Welfare state, Lenticular subject position, Immigrant family, Care manager, Denmark


In Europe, a growing population of aging citizens have migrant background, and many have their origin in non-Western countries. Often, care arrangements in these families are different from those of the majority populations. In Denmark, a growing number of immigrant families utilise an option in the Social Service Act, under which municipalities can contract a family member to take care of an elderly citizen at home. Due to the special construct of the ‘self-appointed helper arrangement’, the caregiver is both a professional care worker, formally employed by the municipality, and a close relative. As such, the arrangement provides a unique opportunity to examine ideas and practices of care at the intersection of the immigrant family and the state.

Based on data from interviews with and observations among both immigrant families and municipal care managers, we explore consequences of this care scheme for aging citizens and their self-appointed helpers. Drawing on the concept of ‘lenticular subject positions’, we show how both the self-appointed helpers and the care managers adopt two different, often contradictory, perspectives or subject positions simultaneously.

In all, we argue that the self-appointed helper arrangement constitutes a grey zone in the Danish public health care system, since both care managers and helpers seem to neglect the national legislation and standard procedures, in relation to the elders and the general work environment. The consequences are most severe for the self-appointed helpers who end up in a particular precarious position at the margins of the Danish labor market.

Author Biographies

Sara Lei Sparre, Department of Anthropology Aarhus University

Assistant Professor, PhD

Department of Anthropology

Aarhus University

Mikkel Rytter, Department of Anthropology Aarhus University

Professor MSO, PhD

Department of Anthropology

Aarhus University


Alber, Erdmute and Drotbohm, Heike (eds.) 2015. Anthropological Perspectives on Care: Work, Kinship and the Life-course. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Andreassen, Rikke. 2007. Der er et yndigt land. Medier, minoriteter og danskhed. København: Tiderne Skifter.

Baldassar, Loretta. 2014. “Too sick to move: distant ‘crisis’ care in transnational families”, International Review of Sociology, 24, no. 3: 391-405.

Buch, Elana D. 2015. “Anthropology of aging and care”, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 44, 277–93.

Coe, Cati. 2011. “What is love? The materiality of care in Ghanaian transnational families”, International Migration, 49, no. 6: 7-24.

Coe, Cati. 2016. “Orchestrating care in time: Ghanaian migrant women, family, and reciprocity”, American Anthropologist, 118, no. 1: 37–48.

Coe, Cati. 2017. “Negotiating eldercare in Akuapem, Ghana: Care-scripts and the role of non-kin”, Africa, 87, no. 1: 137–154.

Dalgas, Karina and Olwig Karen F. 2015. “Local and transnational care relations: Relatedness and family practice among au pairs in Denmark”, Global Networks, 15, no. 4: 469–484.

Europa-Kommissionen. 2018. Dine rettigheder til social sikring i Danmark. Generaldirektoratet for Beskæftigelse, Sociale Anliggender og Arbejdsmarkedsforhold og Inklusion, Bruxelles.

Forssell, Emilia. 2013. “Transnational aging, care and the welfare State”, Transnational Social Review, 3, no. 1: 83-99.

Forssell, Emilia, Torres, Sandra and Olaison, Anna. 2015. “Care managers’ experiences of cross-cultural needs assessment meetings: the case of late-in-life immigrants”, Ageing & Society 35, no. 2: 576-601.

Hage, Ghassan. 2015. “The Diasporic Condition”. Paper presented at the international conference Middle Eastern Christians in Diaspora: Past and Present, Continuity and Change, University of St Andrews, Scotland, 26–27 May 2015.

Hansen, Agnete M. 2016. “Rehabilitative bodywork: Cleaning up the dirty work of homecare”, Sociology of Health & Illness, 38, no. 7: 1092–1105.

Hansen, Agnete M. and Kamp Annette. 2016. ”From carers to trainers: Professional identity and body work in rehabilitative eldercare”, Gender, Work and Organization, 38, no. 7: 1092-1105.

Harraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14, no. 3: 575-599.

Hervik, Peter. 2011. The annoying difference: The emergence of Danish neonationalism, neoracism, and populism in the post-1989 World. Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford.

Hoag, Colin. 2011. “Assembling partial perspectives: Thoughts on the anthropology of bureaucracy”, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 34, no. 1: 81-94.

Hochchilds, Arlie R. 1995. “The culture of politics: Traditional, postmodern, cold-modern, and warm-modern ideals of care”, Social Politics, 2, no. 3: 331-346.

Ismail, Abir M. forthcoming. “Care in practice: Negotiations of elderly care in multigenerational Arab Muslim families in Denmark”, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim life.

Jørgensen, Rikke and Ditte Shapiro. 2019. ”’Vi kan ikke tænke nu’: Flygtninges sociale navigationer i et bevægeligt integrationslandskab”. Udenfor Nummer, vol. 39: 42-51.

Karlsen, Marry-Anne. 2015. Precarious inclusion: Irregular migration, practices of care, and state b/ordering in Norway. AIT OSLO AS / University of Bergen

Lamb, Sarah. (ed.) 2017. Successful aging as a contemporary obsession: Global perspectives. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.

Lan, Pei-Chia. 2002. “Subcontracting filial piety: Elder care in ethnic Chinese immigrant families in California”, Journal of Family Issues, 23, no. 7: 812-835.

Lassen, Aske J. and Andersen, Michael. 2016. “What enhancement techniques suggest about the good death”, Culture Unbound vol. 8: 104-121.

Lipsky, Michael. 1980. Street-level Bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. Russel Sage Foundations, New York.

Liversage, Anika and Jakobsen Vibeke. 2016. Ældre fra Tyrkiet – hverdagsliv og vilkår. Roskilde Universitetsforlag, Roskilde.

Ludvigsen, Bodil. 2016. ”Når ældre mennesker bliver gamle: Betydningen af velfærdsstaten og medborgerskabet”, Tidsskriftet Antropologi vol. 73, 89-110.

Mian, Saira L. 2007. “Ambivalence, Care and Intergenerational Relations. The Case of Elderly Pakistani Immigrants in Denmark”. Masters Dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen.

Mikkelsen, Henrik H. 2017. “Never too late for pleasure: Aging, neoliberalism, and the politics of potentiality in Denmark”, American Ethnologist, 44, no. 4: 646–656.

Moen, Bjørg. 2008. ”Tilhørighetens balance: Norsk-pakistanske kvinners hverdagsliv i transnasjonale familier”, Doktoravhandling, Socialantropologisk Institutt, Universitetet i Oslo.

Mol, Annemarie. 2008. The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice. Routledge, London.

Mølgaard, Mette and Lindblad, Peter. 1995. “Aging and immigrants: Their condition and expectation to old age”. Multiculturalism in the Nordic Societies. Nordisk Ministerråd.

Olwig, Karen F. 2015. “Migrating for a profession: Becoming a Caribbean nurse in post-WWII Britain”, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 22, no. 3: 258-272.

Oxlund, Bjarke. 2018. “The life course in a migrating world: Hybrid scripts of ageing and imaginaries of care”, Advances in Life Course Research, vol. 38: 72-79.

Qureshi, Kaveri. 2013. ”Sabar: body politics among middle-aged Pakistani migrant women”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 1: 120-137.

Rytter, Mikkel 2013. Family Upheaval: Generation, Mobility and Relatedness among Pakistani Migrants in Denmark. Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books.

Rytter, Mikkel. 2019. “Writing against integration: Danish imaginaries about culture, race and belonging”, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 84, no. 4: 678-697.

Rytter, Mikkel and Ghandchi, Narges. 2019. “Integration via arbejde. Prekær inklusion og udvidet usikkerhed blandt afghanske flygtninge”, Social Kritik, vol. 160: 4-17.

Sparre, Sara L. Submitted. “Gendered care, empathy and un/doing difference in the Danish welfare state: Approaching female caregivers in immigrant families”, NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research.

Sparre, Sara L. and Galal, Lise P. 2018. “Incense and holy bread: The sense of belonging in ritual among Middle Easter Christians in Denmark”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44, no. 6: 2649-2666.

Sparre, Sara L. and Rytter, Mikkel. 2019. ”’Selvudpegede hjælpere’ som omsorgsgivere for plejekrævende ældre indvandrere og flygtninge”, Tidsskriftet Gerontologi, 35, no. 2: 26-32.

Thelen, Tatjana and Alber, Erdmute. 2018. “Reconnecting state and kinship: Temporalities, scales and classifications”. In: T. Thelen and E. Alber (eds.), Reconnecting state and kinship, University of Pensylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1-35.

Thelen, Tatjana and Coe, Cati. 2019. “Political belonging through elderly care: Temporalities, representations and mutuality”, Anthropological Theory, 19, no. 2: 279-299.

Thelen, Tatjana, Thiemann, Andre and Roth, Duska. 2014. “State kinning and kinning the state in Serbian Elder Care Programs”, Social Analysis 58, no. 3: 107-123.

Thelen, Tatjana, Vetters, Larissa and Benda-Beckmann, Keebet von. 2014. “Introduction to stategraphy: Toward and relational anthropology of the state”, Social Analysis, 58, no. 3: 1-19.

Ungerson, Clare. 2003. “Commodified care work in European labour markets”, European Societies 5, no. 4: 377-396.

Wivel, Lena. 2012. “Etniske minoriteter I Københavns kommunes ældrepleje’, Tidsskriftet Gerontologi 28, no. 1: 8-11.

Zelizer, Viviana Z. 2005. The purchase of intimacy. Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ.

Ældreforum 2013. Ældre med anden etnisk baggrund – viden og inspiration til indsats. Ældreforum, Odense.