Who we consider family and with who we share strong familial ties evolve over time. However, the question remains: How do changes in family size and makeup impact levels of available emotional support for older adults? To address this research question, Julia Sauter, Eric Widmer and Matthias Kliegel (University of Geneva, NCCR LIVES) explore whether and how the amount of emotional support available for older adults depends on (1) changes to important family ties and (2) negative life events such as the death of a partner or experiencing an accident. To do so, the authors use two waves of the longitudinal CIGEV-LIVES Vivre-Leben-Vivere study, a large survey addressing the living and health conditions of older people in Switzerland.
By combining data on life events occurring during old age and family makeup, the authors find that who older adults report as sharing significant family ties are indeed highly dynamic and change over time, with over 20 % of respondents omitting three or more people between the two survey waves and 46% adding one or two. These distinct patterns of losses and gains mirror the changes in available emotional support observed among respondents.
While changes in family makeup had a significant effect on the availability of emotional support, the effect of negative life events is rather marginal. The result suggests that family-based emotional support, although it may vary across the life course, does not change substantially when negative events happen in older age because family ties are indeed strong with high levels of mutual confidence. Instead, older adults proactively manage and select who constitutes their family and prioritize engagement with emotionally close contacts.
The results show that even the most intimate circle of social relationships, namely the family, is subject to a considerable number of changes in old age and that it depends on contextual factors and individual motivations. Thus, we must consider family as a demographic reserve in future research to reveal how life course factors and their timing encourage or hinder the establishment of relationships and the family-based emotional support they provide.