Academic journal article Family Relations

Intragenerational Proximity and the Social Role of Sibling Neighbors after Midlife

Academic journal article Family Relations

Intragenerational Proximity and the Social Role of Sibling Neighbors after Midlife

Article excerpt

Adult siblings who live near one another can be a source of social support, but little is known about sibling proximity after childhood. Using the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), we examine predictors of distance to nearest sibling as well as patterns of support and contact among sibling neighbors for respondents age 55 and over. Blacks are more likely than Whites to live in close proximity to siblings in adulthood. Despite the closer proximity among Black siblings, an analysis of sibling neighbors finds no racial difference in exchange of instrumental support. However, frequent contact with sibling neighbors is more common among Blacks than Whites. Results also indicate that older persons receive more support from nearby siblings when they do not have other core family members (spouses, children or parents) in their family network.

Key Words: adult sibling relationships, family neighbors, intragenerational, proximity, social support.

Sonia Miner* and Peter Uhlenberg The significance of family relationships throughout adulthood and old age is now widely recognized by family researchers. While most attention has focused on the family of procreation and intergenerational relationships, some recent studies have examined intragenerational relationships between older adult siblings (Bedford, 1989; Cicirelli, 1980; Connidis, 1994; Gold, 1989a, 1989b; Seltzer, 1989; White & Riedmann, 1992). It is clear that most adults in the United States have siblings and that many have meaningful relationships with their siblings. Studies have focused on adult siblings as a source of social and instrumental support (Cicirelli, 1985; Cicirelli, Coward, & Dwyer, 1992; Connidis, 1994; Scott, 1983; Suggs, 1985; White & Riedmann, 1992) as well as on psychological dimensions of the relationship (Gold, 1989a, 1989b). Mui and Morrow-Howell (1993) combined the issues of support exchange and psychological outcomes in their research on caregiving role strain experienced by siblings in later life.

This study explores two questions related to residential proximity of siblings in middle and later life. First, what variables predict the residential proximity of older adult siblings? Second, for siblings who live in the same community, what factors influence the level of social, expressive, and instrumental support exchange in their relationship? In looking at both questions, special attention is given to racial comparisons and to the effects of kinship structure. The reason for interest in these variables is developed in the next section where previous studies of sibling relationships are reviewed.


Siblings frequently have long term, permanent, and supportive (instrumental and affective) relationships. The sibling relationship typically continues as both siblings pass through all stages of the life course. In contrast, spouse relationships begin in adulthood with individuals who seldom share a common childhood history. Similarly, the parent-child relationship is not as long term as sibling relationships, because it is usually terminated by the death of the parent. Cicirelli (1988) notes this special feature of sibling relationships when he writes:

Sibling relationships have a longer course than most other human relationships, beginning at the birth of the younger child and continuing (for most) through the life span (p. 608).

Cicirelli (1988) also notes that sibling relationships are unique because of "their egalitarian nature, common genetic heritage, common cultural milieu and common early experiences" (p. 608). Because of these commonalities and a sense of family unity, siblings tend to retain affection for one another in later life and in some cases may even provide support to one another (Cicirelli et al., 1992). While other sources of support are more common for older persons (e.g., spouses and children), siblings may serve as "an insurance policy" for people if other sources of support are not available (Hochschild, 1973; Gold, 1990). …

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