VARIATIONS IN SUPPORT NETWORKS: IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIAL POLICY
G. Clare Wenger, Said Shahtahmasebi
Most research on elderly people and their relationships with others has concentrated on contacts with and availability of members of the family in terms of help, support, and care. Within this emphasis on family relationships, much more has been written about the role of adult children than any other relative. Less attention has been paid to spouses and the importance of marriage and even less to the roles played in old age by brothers and sisters. There has been some interest in the significance of grandchildren, but this has been primarily focussed on nonadult grandchildren and has not emphasized their role in providing support. Research looking at other relatives has been meager. Outside the family some researchers have discussed friends and neighbors but usually in isolation from relationships with family members ( Wenger, 1987a).
Recent work in the field of social gerontology has moved toward the study of the networks of relationships within which elderly people live (e.g., Corin, 1982, 1987; Kendig, 1986; Stephens et al., 1978; and Wenger 1987b, 1986). Taking the network as the unit, these studies concentrate on the complete web of helping or supportive relationships available to an elderly person, including immediate and extended family, whether or not living in the same household, as well as friends and neighbors.
Representing a further development of the network approach, this chapter presents data from a three-phase longitudinal study of the support networks of old people living in a range of rural communities in North Wales ( United Kingdom), looking at variation, change, stability, and implications for social policy. The first phase of the study consisted of an interview survey of 534 elderly people aged 65 + living in their own homes, which was conducted in 1979. This survey measured the size,