Family & Social Support

The Family and Social Support Systems

By birth, adoption, marriage, or other social arrangement, nearly everyone belongs to a family. From the cradle to the grave, most of us depend on our families for love, care, support, guidance, a sense of identity, and a feeling of belonging. We play a variety of family roles over the course our lifetime – child, sibling, cousin, spouse, parent, in-law, grandparent, or even great-grandparent and great-great grandparent. Family members may live separately, with a partner, or in a nuclear family, extended family, or blended family household. While what constitute a family varies by historical time, region, and circumstance, the family group is universally the most basic of social institutions.

Families play an important role in social support systems – the family, friends, and organizations that we turn to in times of need for emotional support, financial assistance, personal care, household help, and any other assistance (Atchley & Barusch, 2004; Himes, 1993). Social support provides people with a sense of being loved and cared for, esteemed, and valued. It allows us to receive and to give to others reassurance, affirmation, and assistance, especially during difficult times.

Strong family bonds and close ties with friends help seniors cope with the life events commonly associated with aging, such as retirement, widowhood, decreased mobility, and poor heath. An increasing body of research suggests that social support is an important factor of successful aging (Rowe & Kahn, 1998). Older adults with strong social support systems are more likely than those without such support to experience better physical health (Bosworth & Schaie, 1997), better mental health (Krause, 2001), a lower risk for long-term care placement (Freedman, 1996), and longer lives (Seeman, Kaplan, Knudsen, Cohen, & Guralink, 1987).

Over the past few decades, social, demographic, and economic factors have significantly altered the structure of the American family. For example, more mothers are working outside the home, people are living long – many with limited mobility or cognitive impairment – and families are more geographically dispersed. Not surprisingly, these changes in family structure affect family relationships and the types of support provided to older family members. In spite of these challenges, the large majority of Americans strive to continue to meet the needs of their elders (Atchley & Barusch, 2004; Cohen & Guralnik 1987).

Over the past few decades, social, demographic, and economic factors have significantly altered the structure of the American family. For example, more mothers are working outside the home, people are living longer – many with limited mobility or cognitive impairment – and families are more geographically dispersed. Not surprisingly, these changes in family structure affect family relationships and the types of support provided to older family members. In spite of these challenges, the large majority of Americans strive to continue to meet the needs of their elders (Atchley & Barusch, 2004); Bengtson, Putney, & Wakeman, 2004).

It is important to note that due to constraints of space, we have generalized much of the information about families to reflect that of the majority of Americans or the national average. Family patterns differ widely among racial and ethnic groups, as well as by income and other factors. For example, the national average of female-headed households with children is 8 percent. This, however, varies considerably by race and ethnicity. In 2002, about 5 percent of non-Hispanic white and Asian households were female-headed households with children, compared to 14 percent Hispanic households and 22 percent of African American households (Ameristat, 2003).

The interdependence and deep emotional feelings between family members create an intricate and often delicate web that you will need to understand. This section provides readers with an overview of the American family – dispelling some of the myths and affirming the realities of where we have been, where we are today, and how things are likely to change in the future. It also reviews the importance of friends in social support systems.

 The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. www.csa.us