The Aging Family and Social Support Networks



  • Understand how demographic trends affect the structure and function of family.
  • Discuss three dimensions of intergenerational relationships.
  • Indentify forms of social support in the older family.
  • Discuss the significance of ethnicity as it may effect levels of support in families.
  • Describe how historical trends such as increasing divorce rates, women's employment, fertility patterns and the growing role of grandparents impacts social change and the family.





Almost all of us will live our entire lives within the context of a family. The family provides important resources that sustain the well-being of its members at every stage of the life-course. Indeed, exchanges of support between family members is a life-time activity, as we nurture our young and care for our elders primarily within families. For the elderly, the family takes on added importance as aging-related changes increase their need for assistance. Even so, families exist in a larger social context that shapes their capacity to function as sources of support to their more vulnerable older members.



Theories and Models of Intergenerational Relations in the Aging Family: The Meaning of Generations and Cohorts

In order to understand the relationship between parents and their adult children, it is necessary to define the meaning of the term "generation". A generation is a position of ranked descent in a family lineage. The family roles of children, parent, and grandparent define the generational position within a family, and denote the potential number of intergenerational relationships (ie. grandparents who are also children have at least three types of intergenerational relations). The term "cohort", on the other hand, is a term used to designate a group of people born in the same time in history and "travel" through time together as part of the same age-group. Thus, both intercohort relationships and intergenerational relationships are ways of viewing how members in different age-groups are related to each other. However, an important distinction must be made. Whereas intergenerational relations are personal in nature and experienced with the context of families, intercohort relations are between groups of people at the societal level. Whereas the former involves the redistribution of societal resources from one age group to another, the latter involves direct transfers between generations. In spite of these differences, there is an important connection between the two types of relationships. Debates over public financing of entitlement programs for the elderly are essentially arguments over the appropriate responsibility of younger cohorts for elderly cohorts. Yet younger cohorts are also embedded within families with older members. Thus it is important to understand the balance between public (usually government) and private (usually family) support of the elderly, both of which are profoundly influenced by the "aging revolution" of the 20th century.


Relations Between Age Groups in Society

One of the most important demographic trends in developed countries during the twentieth century is population aging. This trend simply means that the proportion of older people in a society is increasing over time. One way to view this change is in terms of the proportion of older individuals in the population. As you have already learned, the percentage of persons in the U.S. population age 65 and older has gone from about 4% in 1900 to almost 13% today. That percentage is expected to reach 23% by the year 2030. The most dramatic acceleration is occurring among older citizens who are 85 years old and older -- the "oldest-old". In just the last 40 years the percentage of the "oldest-old" has more than doubled as percentage of the older population, rising from 6% to almost 15%. Thus, not only is the total population aging, but the older population itself is also getting older.

Three trends are responsible for population aging in the United States: (1) reductions in fertility, (2) reductions in infant and child mortality, and (3) increased life-expectancy in adulthood, (4) the baby-boom.


Intergenerational Solidarity: The Ties that Bind Generations

As a result of demographic changes in fertility and mortality today's and tomorrow's elderly Americans are growing older in families that are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those of their grandparents' generation. This can be seen in terms of both the structure and the duration of family roles and relationships. Unlike the two- and three-generation family structure typical of their predecessors, with four or five siblings in each generation, the elderly today are more likely to be part of four- and five-generation families, with many fewer siblings per generation. Thus, the model has gone from a "pyramid" shaped intergenerational family structure to a "bean-pole" shaped structure.

Pyramid family structure

...vs. Bean-Pole family stucture

This process is known as the "verticalization" of the family lineage. Thus, older people today are more likely to have multiple intergenerational roles, simultaneously being a parent, grandparent, great-grandparent and great-great-grandparent. In addition, the increase in survival have lengthened the time spent in intergenerational family roles. In 1980, for example, women spent four times the number of years as a daughter with both parents alive than did women more than a century ago. The number of shared years across generations is known as co-survival; adult children are increasingly co-surviving their parents and grandparents into their own middle- and old-age. Together with the high fertility of women in the 1950's (the baby-boom), it is estimated that in the year 2020, almost 90% of people 85 and older will have at least one surviving child. Given that being childless is a principal risk factor for institutionalization, these demographic trends have great importance for projected long-term care planning. Parents and their adult children maintain relationships with many different types of styles.

Social scientists who have studied the family have noted three basic dimensions on which intergenerational relationships can be evaluated. These are: (a) affinity (emotional closeness and perceived agreement of opinions between generations), (b) opportunity structure (frequency of contact and residential proximity between generations), and (c) functional exchange (flows of social support between generations). From these three dimensions, intergenerational relations can be categorized into five underlying types: tight-knit, sociable, intimate-but-distant, obligatory, detached. These five types are described as follows:

Not surprisingly, adult children are more likely to have a tight-knit relationship with their mothers than their father, and more likely to have a detached relationship with their fathers than with their mothers. Another pattern is that relationships with divorced parents (divorced fathers in particular) are more than three times more likely to be detached.


Social Support in the Older Family: Types & Sources

Older people often rely on family to either meet the demands of everyday life, or for help with a chronic illness or during a crisis. Indeed, most of the assistance provided to frail and disabled elderly living in the community comes from family sources. Some scholars estimate that 70% of the total support received by the elderly derives from informal sources, the majority from spouses and children. Social support from family can be represented by four basic types: instrumental support (tangible forms of help such as housework, transportation, shopping and personal care); emotional support (confiding, comforting, reassuring, listening to problems, "being there"); informational support (advice in seeking medical treatment, referrals to agencies, sharing family news), and financial/housing support.

Two aspects of instrumental support deserve special mention. First, financial assistance, which takes the form of transfers of money, large gifts or the provision of housing is an often overlooked form of tangible assistance that also includes financial management--doing taxes, balancing checkbook, helping to pay bills. Second, personal care consists of assistance with activities of daily living that are necessary for basis survival--such as feeding, bathing, dressing and toileting. It is this type of assistance that is frequently required when caregiving for older people who have severe physical and/or cognitive limitations.

Click here to see a graph of the percent of the elderly that require help for selected activities.

Click here to see a graph of the number of ADL Limitations for persons over the age of 65.

Click here to see a bar graph of the the types of ADL limitations of older populations by type.

While most frail older people often have a primary supporter, caregiver or confidant--someone who takes most of the responsibility for the well-being of the older individual--it is often the case that social support is provided by multiple individuals that make up a support network of the older person. The composition of a support network ranges from fairly impersonal relationships such as neighbors to very intimate relationships such as those with spouses and children.


Models of Social Support

Who do older people turn to when they need help? Two theories have been advanced to better understand the choice strategy employed by older people when mobilizing their social support network. One theory proposes that there is a hierarchy in the preferences of older people choosing their source of support. Older people prefer to receive support from spouses; if they are widowed, they turn to children, followed by other relatives, friends, neighbors, and finally to professional services. This method of selecting care providers is called the hierarchical compensatory model. Another model proposes that different tasks require different sources of support. Responses that require proximity, such a those required in an emergency, are best left to neighbors; social and leisure activities are most often done with age-peer friends; supportive services that require large investments of time and energy (such as those related to personal care) are done primarily by those who have had the longest and most intimate relationship with the older person (usually the spouse and/or children). When the frequency and intensity of personal care becomes overwhelming to the informal providers, then professional in-home services are summoned. Institutionalization becomes the last resort. The basis principle of this model, called the task-specific model, is that support functions need to be shared across a portfolio of providers with each provider doing what it is best suited to do.

Which of these two models do you think the literature support? Evidence provided by Litwak, Silverstein and Messeri suggests that the task-specific model best describes the support received by older people. Thus, friends are more likely to help with meeting socialization needs (such as sharing activities and providing companionship), neighbors are more likely to help in an emergency, and spouses and children (if nearby) are more likely to provide regular forms of instrumental assistance and personal care. The authors identify proximity, the degree of long-term commitment, and age-compatibility as three dimensions that must be considered when assessing which component of the support network is most likely to intervene. Adult children may have long-term commitment to their parents, but may not necessarily live close-by. Thus, they may have to arrange and pay for in-home care from a distance, or move their parents to live nearer to them in order to provide the necessary care. Since neighbors are proximate they may help out when a speedy reaction is required (such as dialing the police the case of burglary) but may not have the long-term commitment necessary for care that requires the delivery of frequent, intensively laborious, and personal types of assistance. Friends -- because they tend to be among age peers -- may be too frail to help out with more intensive types of care, but may in fact act as surrogate family members if the relationship has evolved over time to be more kin-like, that is have a more long-term commitment built on a pattern of reciprocal exchanges over the life-course.

Even when their parents live in nursing homes and residential facilities, adult children can be important contributors of support to them. Children may monitor the welfare of their institutionalized parents by monitoring the quality of their care, and by providing them with a sense of attachment through visiting, sharing confidences, gift giving, and helping them engage in activities outside the institution. This is known as the theory of shared functions, which states that families and formal institutional services act in concert to insure the physical and emotional well-being of impaired older individuals.


Intergenerational Support over the Life-Course

One of the most important dynamics within family relations is the strong sense of responsibility and commitment that adult children have toward their aging parents. In some cases, this commitment is maintained despite earlier estrangement, or even a history of childhood abuse or neglect. How can the resilience and durability of this relationship be explained? Why do adult children provide support to their elderly parents? In spite of hardships and sacrifices involved, why do children rally to support their older parents? Several theories have been advanced to explain this, each one relying on the idea that early family experiences of children influence their willingness to provide support to parents later in the family life-cycle. In social gerontology two theories have mainly been used to model intergenerational exchanges and reciprocity over the life-course: attachment theory and exchange theory.

Attachment theory proposes that early patterns of family interaction persist over time, yielding consistent family reactions to new situations. Strong positive emotional attachments between individuals build long-term empathy around shared experiences and the perception of a common destiny. Continuity in emotional attachment between parents and children over time serves to motivate (or discourage) the child to provide social support to their aging parents. Such an approach has been used successfully to study how earlier emotional attachments in the family are manifested by helping behaviors in later life.

An alternative paradigm for interpreting serial patterns of exchange over the life-course is the support bank theory (Antonucci, 1990). This uses the metaphor of a "bank" to describe the dynamics of reciprocity -- social investment and withdrawal -- over time. A "support bank" is a repository of social equity which parents build early in the family life-cycle by investing in their children, and which is then available to be withdrawn late in life when the parent becomes vulnerable due to old age dependencies. While, at any one point in time the exchanges between parents and children may be severely unbalanced, reciprocity may be observed when the balance sheet is tallied over the life-course of the relationship. The partners in the intergenerational relationship variously play the role of provider and of receiver depending on the type and timing of developmental needs. Thus, parents invest emotionally and financially in their younger dependent children early in the family life-course, and withdraw this social equity when their need for social support become more acute in later life. Thus, two important aspects of this theory are: 1) the lagged nature of reciprocal exchanges between the generations, and 2) the idea that investing in children is a form of social capital which serves as an investment for future return.

Some economist suggest that the anticipation of receiving an inheritance motivates adult children to care for the aging parents. However, it is difficult to judge just how this mechanism actually operates. Is inheritance a reward for past caregiving, or is it used strategically by the parent to induce children to provide care into the future? These questions are unanswered at this point. However, intergenerational inheritance--and the financial incentives that are connected with it--does play some role in the behavior of adult children toward their aged parents. Further, it appears from one study that sons, but not daughters, will provide more care the stronger their expectations for an inheritance.


Older People as Providers of Social Support

The study of social support in the older family has typically taken the form of the caregiver model--where the older individual is the recipient of support. However, recent evidence is challenging the assumption that old people are only recipients of assistance, or that they receive more support from children than they provide to them. There is no question that older people are important contributors of support to their adult children and their grandchildren, including provision of financial assistance, housing, baby-sitting services, emotional support, and advice. Older people now are more likely to provide housing for their adult children, than their adult children are to provide housing for them. This trend has grown in recent decades as older people have become more economically secure and their children less so. Most recently, the phenomenon of "boomerang" children -- adult children returning to the parental nest due to divorce and unemployment -- is partially responsible for this trend.

A pattern of reciprocal exchange whereby aging parents receive more support from their children than they provide to their children--or role reversal--typically increases with age, but cannot be said to be representative of older people in general. Studies have shown that older people are actually net providers of support well into their 80s. Further, when role reversal does occur, the reversal tends to occur for instrumental more than emotional types of support.

Several perspectives on the aging family suggest that receiving too much support from children (over-support) or receiving support from children that cannot be reciprocated may cause distress among older persons. In most Western cultures, older parents prefer to remain functionally autonomous for as long as possible before relying on adult children for support. Studies show that the elderly generally expect less support from their children than their children are willing to provide. Indeed, at high levels of intensity, intergenerational social support may cause a painful re-evaluation of the relationship around the difficult issue of role-reversal. Research also suggests that otherwise well-intentioned family members who provide inappropriate amounts of assistance undermine the autonomy and self-esteem of older individuals. Support considered to be excessive may make the older recipient feel guilty, incompetent, resentful, lacking in autonomy, or coerced.

The theory of social breakdown provides a social-psychological perspective on the potential negative consequences of social support. This theory proposes that overly vigorous social support provided to vulnerable elderly persons results in greater dependency by causing skills to atrophy and competence to erode -- which further increases vulnerability and emotional distress. Providers of social support should be sensitive to the expectations of older people, and allow them sufficient challenges so they can maintain existing abilities and skills. The elderly need to feel efficacious--that they are making a contribution. Studies have found that elderly parents who provided support to others experienced a greater sense of well-being than those who did not. Mechanisms through which providing support to others improve well-being are the greater sense of purpose engendered by the adoption of a productive social role, the development of intimacy and trust with others, and feelings that any support received is being reciprocated.


Sources of Diversity in Family Support of the Aged Gender

Gender is a major concern for gerontologists when considering social support in the older family. Many studies have shown that the large majority of social support provided to impaired older people living in the community comes from women caregivers. Typical of this arrangement are wives providing care for husbands and daughters providing care to either parent. Daughters are also more likely than sons to be the primary caregiver to older parents. Over one-half of adult daughters who have a surviving parent can expect to provide care for that aging parent at some point in the future.

Women don't care for their aging parents in a vacuum; they also occupy other important social roles such as those of spouse, mother, and employee. Those women who provide care for younger dependent children and older parents at the same time are known as women-in-the-middle. Often the burden placed on these women is exacerbated by working in the paid labor force. This trend is particularly common among professional women who tend to delay childbearing, and therefore are the most likely to have small children when their parents are approaching an age that puts them at-risk for physical impairments. The squeeze experienced by these generationally "sandwiched" women is compounded by working outside the home and raising children as single parents.

Did you know that research by Moen et. al. found that middle-age women workers do not necessarily leave their jobs when they become caregivers for their elderly parents? This pattern, while heroic, may produce "role strain", where important social roles are either in conflict with each other, or overload the capacity of the individual. Such stress may result in emotional or physical symptoms of the caregiver, such as depression and high blood pressure. The use of respite services, participation in caregiver support groups, relaxation and time management techniques, and behavioral management skills have helped caregivers cope with the demands of combining roles (parent, spouse, worker, caregiver) and assist in dealing with the stress of managing a behaviorally unpredictable parent.

Why is it almost axiomatic that women are more likely than men to provide social support in the family? What accounts for the greater willingness of women to be the primary caregivers to dependent members of their families? There are at least four explanations for this phenomenon. The first explanation is the "division of labor" perspective which states that men are indeed involved in caregiving, but only insofar as the tasks required do not involve personal care. Men, thus, provide such assistance as financial management, home and auto repair, and arranging for and coordinating formal services. From this perspective there is greater gender equity in the division caregiving duties than has been reported, since the literature tends to focus primarily on personal and "hands-on" types of care. Evidence also suggests that in families with no daughters, sons "rise to the occasion" by providing instrumental care with the same frequency as found among daughters.

A second explanation for gender inequities in caregiving focuses on income differentials between men and women. On average men still have higher incomes than women. Therefore, men who must take time off from work to take care of their impaired relatives would sacrifice more income than similarly situated women, producing an economic incentive for women to take on this role.

A third explanation for the greater involvement of women is "bio-evolutionary" in origin. This explanation notes that women are socialized early in life to adopt nurturing roles in preparation for child-rearing. Then as women age, their adoption of a "care-taking ideology" becomes generalized to include others, including dependent parents. Indeed, women have been described as kin-keepers in the family, maintaining contact within and across generations and caring for the family's most vulnerable members .

Finally, a feminist approach to this issue focuses on power differentials between the sexes that compel women to perform less rewarding and more self-sacrificial roles in the family. From this perspective, power is reinforced by larger societal structures that constrain each gender to "appropriate" role behaviors.


Race and Ethnicity

One of the central debates in the field of minority aging is whether ethnicity is a source of strength, or a source of jeopardy in the families of older people. Some literature demonstrates that the African-American elderly are more actively involved than white elderly in social support networks, both providing and receiving support with greater frequency. These observations are partially explained by the honored position that the elderly have in African-American culture, and the strong role played by older women in maintaining family cohesion in that culture.

However, other evidence points to some weakness in the support patterns of African-American elderly, and has challenged earlier conclusions about the energized support systems in the African-American family. In some national surveys, African-American families are less likely than white families to provide support across generations, suggesting that poverty may be disruptive to stable family life. The more "fluid" nature of family relations among African-Americans may be responsible for these observations. Greater rates of marital disruption and unmarried parenting among African-Americans may suppress involvement in family support. In addition, the greater prominence of "fictive kin"--non-biological relationships that function as though they were family--in African-American communities may cause an underestimation of the true involvement in support where only biological relatives are considered. Thus, while cultural norms for family care may indeed be a great resource for African-American elderly, vulnerability related to increased rates of poverty, discrimination, marital disruption, and job uncertainty may actually weaken family bonds.

In Hispanic-American and Asian-American families relations with the elderly are affected by the added dimensions of language compatibility and acculturation. Studies consistently show stronger levels of familial obligation, more frequent social interaction, higher volume of support exchange, and greater likelihood of shared living arrangements with elders in Hispanic and Asian families, when compared to those in Anglo families. In particular, elders occupy valued roles in Hispanic and Asian families by transmitting traditional patterns of belief and behavior through the generations, and by staving off the influence of the dominant culture on younger generations.

However, problems with acculturation--the adoption of mainstream values, language, and practices-- may prove to be isolating for older people from traditional immigrant cultures. Evidence suggests that the slow acquisition of English may be responsible for distress among older Hispanics and Asians by increasing their risk of isolation from English-speaking family and community members. Language incompatibility and gaps in cultural beliefs between grandparents and their adult children has been found to weaken intergenerational cohesion by inhibiting the amount of contact between them. Moreover, the socialization of younger generations to mainstream American may erode the strong and central role that family responsibilities play in the social life of families from Hispanic and Asian origins. The rapid acculturation of youth produces intergenerational tension and the potential for conflict.


Social Class

Most studies show that the that lower income families tend to provide more supportive services to their elderly members than do more affluent families. Scholars and policy-makers often attribute the apparent resiliency of poor families to their ability to adapt to scarcity; transferring social support across generations occurs at little or no financial cost. However, it is less than clear whether poverty or ethnic culture is more important in determining the level of family support provided to older family members. Some scholars find that African-American families, but particularly Hispanic families, retain strong family obligations to the elderly in spite of upward socioeconomic mobility, suggesting a cultural rather than an economic basis for strong norms of family responsibility in minority groups.


Historical Trends in Aging Families: Impact of Social Change

How have historical trends in social life influenced the ability of relatives--especially adult children--to serve as resources to older family members. In this section, six social changes since World War II are reviewed that some scholars believe have had an impact on intergenerational relationships. Some of these changes such increase in divorce and geography are thought to have limited the willingness and the capacity of adult children to serve as sources of support to their older parents. On the other hand, other changes such as improvements in the health and economic status of the aged are thought to have eased the demand on children for providing support to their older parents.

  • Increasing divorce rates. The rise in divorce and remarriage rates, and the proliferation of step-kin have created complex family structures with fractured relations and ambiguous role expectations between the generations. Divorce among parents has weakened the strength of intergenerational ties with adult children, and particularly with divorced fathers. Divorce among adult children has weakened their capacity to provide for their older parents and increase the likelihood that they will have to rely on their parents for social support. However, the possibility remains that divorce and remarriage (and subsequent divorces and remarriages) has increased the sheer number of kin in these complex families, the availability of whom may mitigate the negative consequences of marital disruption.
  • Increasing women's employment. The increase in dual earner families, in conjunction with expanded education and occupational opportunities for women have substantially increased the labor force participation among adult daughters. This trend has also strained women's capacity to provide for older parents, a stressor added to child-caring responsibilities among "women in the middle".
  • Reduction in geographic proximity. Geographic separation of adult generations and residential independence of the elderly have been taken by some scholars as evidence that the intergenerational family is in decline, and therefore unable to insure the well-being of its members. Indeed, over the last century older parents are increasingly more likely to live independently of their children, and there is some evidence of decline between the 1960's and 1980's in the proportion of elderly who live near adult children. The demands of long-distance caregiving to older parents has emerged as central family issue in the 1990's.
  • Economic change. The economy plays a strong role in the need and capacity for family support. Economic change over the last several decades has differentially affected age-cohorts such that working-age adults will reach old age with different levels of personal and family resources than their parents and grandparents. Wage stagnation and corporate downsizing over the last two decades have predominantly been felt by the younger population, while the inflation of property values, the expansion of pensions, and government policies of the three decades following World War II have chiefly benefited the economic well-being of retirees. Therefore, young- and middle-aged adults may experience greater economic hardships in old age compared to current cohorts of elderly persons.
    llustrative of this change is that in every decade since 1940 older people are increasingly more likely to be the head of the household when they live in residences with their adult children. This implies that older parents are more likely to devote their personal resources to adult children. Only in cases of rather severe physical impairment are older parents more likely to move into the homes of their children. It is anticipated that the balance of wealth between generations will continue to shift with economic fluctuations, continually changing the balance of support flowing between older parents and their adult children.
  • Improving health in later life. Evidence from demographic studies reveals that health is improving among the elderly. Analysis of national data has revealed that when based on chronological age, the functional health of older people has shown consistent improvement between 1970 and 1990. Improvements in diet, exercise, early detection, and in the availability and delivery of health care have produced the healthiest older population in human history. Further, the age of widowhood is rising, suggesting that spousal support (accounting for the majority of informal care to the elderly) is more likely to be available in more contemporary cohorts of older persons. These facts produce an intriguing question: If indeed there are reductions in the amount of intergenerational support to older parents, does improved health and reduced rates of widowhood among the elderly account for it?

  • Fertility patterns. Historical changes in fertility patterns over the twentieth century have produced fluctuations in family size that have a direct bearing on opportunities for intergenerational solidarity and support. The large birth cohort of the baby-boom (1946-1964) dramatically increased the number of offspring per family. Extrapolating from known patterns of caregiving, it is anticipated that the current cohort of older parents will be relatively advantaged in their old age support by having had large families. This advantage is expected to continue for several decades, with the aging of the parents of the middle-aged boomers. However, since baby-boomers tend to have smaller families than their parents (and more likely to be childless), they may be at a disadvantage when they reach old age and their need for care is realized.

  • Weakening responsibility to family. Changing attitudes toward the salience of the family as the basis for social life may diminish the normative basis for maintaining strong intergenerational commitment. While some observers have noted a relative decline in the importance of the nuclear family as a societal mechanism for achieving success and insuring well-being, obligations for the needs of other generations remains quite high. However, there has been little long-term analysis of how these obligations change over time.
  • The growing role of grandparents. Scholarly interest in grandparenting has grown in recent years, prompted by recognition of the valued role that grandparents play in caring for their grandchildren. Such care ranges from baby-sitting, which allows both parents to work, to being a full-time guardian for the grandchild when the parents are no longer willing or able to fulfill their parenting duties. Most striking is the steep increase in the percentage of grandparents who are raising a grandchild. In the past 25 years (1970-1994) there has been almost a 70% increase in grandparent-headed households in which a grandchild resides. Recent estimates are than one in ten grandparents have cared for a grandchild for at least six months at some time in their lives. While some of the extraordinary contribution by grandparents is involuntary (due to dysfunctions in the middle generation, such as drug addiction, unemployment, incarceration, divorce), much of the supportive activities represent the fulfillment of a fundamental family obligation felt by grandparents toward their children and grandchildren.

Events and transitions in the parental generation have profound implications for the way that grandparent roles are enacted. Research has shown that when parents divorce, the quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship may change, but interestingly it may either suffer or strengthen depending on custody decisions. Divorce generally weakens grandparent-grandchild relations on the non-custodial (usually paternal) side of the family but strengthens those relations on the custodial (usually maternal) side of the family. Custodial parents effectively prevent the grandparents of an estranged spouse from seeing their grandchildren. If the divorced parent remarries and takes on other children, then grandparents may enter a new role of step-grandparenting, one that is fraught with even more ambiguous expectations.

Grandparent roles are also mediated by wider family and non-family relationships. For instance, some grandparents have nobody in the world to whom they are important save their grandchildren, while others are actively involved with other relatives, co-workers, neighbors, friends and other associates. At one extreme, scholars have accused grandparents of selfishly "turning their backs" on their grandchildren in favor of alternative pleasures and leisure activities. However, it is more reasonable that structural factors beyond the control of the grandparent--such as geographic distance from grandchildren and divorce/remarriage of adult children--are primarily responsible for any reduction in the involvement of grandparents and in their ability to engage in "successful" grandparenting.

Long-Distance Grandparenting


In the previous chapter the importance of the four societal contexts -- family, work, the state, and religion -- to the lives of aging individuals was discussed. This chapter continued by focusing at the relations that older individuals maintain with others living within these social structures. Social support is an important factor in people's lives, and it becomes even more important when aging induces changes in individuals' lives. Intergenerational relations are molded by many different aspects of social life -- social class, work, family structure, gender, race -- and they can be categorized in five types: tight-knit, sociable, intimate-but-distant, obligatory, detached. Knowing the connection from intergenerational relations and their historical trends to individuals' lives contributes to a fuller understanding of the lives of older individuals, as well as a recognition of the broad social contexts that the affect individuals' behaviors.

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