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Informal social support is that voluntarily provided by "an interwoven network" (Lubben and Becerra 1987, p. 130) of family and friends who usually have no training for the provision of care and who undertake to provide a variety of services without direct recompense out of a sense of obligation, loyalty or love. As a complement to formal services provided by trained or paid staff, informal social support is crucial to maintaining community residence for many frail elderly people (Cantor 1979).
A large literature describes the existence, function and major features of informal support networks. Both the structure of the helping network as well as its function have been studied. Investigations of structure tend to focus on who network members are, how many members there are, and how members relate to one another, along dimensions such as kinship or geographic proximity, whereas function looks at the kind of help provided, when, where, and by whom (Antonucci 1990; Horowitz 1985; Stoller and Earl 1983). Stresses associated with informal caregiving for the, primary provider(s) of informal care have also formed a focus of research interest. Pathways to involvement in such networks and the meaning of such involvement for participants, be they recipients or providers of care, however, have been relatively little studied. Yet, this article argues, it is precisely these latter aspects--pathways and meanings--that create important variations in the structure and function of informal support networks.
Examination of the causes and consequences of variation in informal support networks has focussed primarily on understanding the impact of single variables (e.g., gender) on network structure or function. So, for example, there is ubiquitous acknowledgement that women--wives, and especially daughters--are the major providers of informal care to frail dependents. A largely unexamined assumption, however, is that daughters are equally motivated to provide care for mothers and fathers, that the pathway bringing daughters to this, activity and the meaning of their involvement is the same whether it be a female or male parent they are caring for. Another example of the impact of gender on informal social support is the finding that, in general, women's networks tend to be larger and more complex than men's. What is the precise role of primary caregivers (i.e., wives or daughters) in affecting the size and composition of helping networks for female versus male dependents? And, vice versa, in what ways have the lives of female and male dependents helped to shape the size and complexity of their informal social support networks? These largely unexamined questions are addressed in this article.
Except for a few models addressing type and choice of helper, research on informal social support has been largely descriptive, derived primarily from national surveys, and often lacking in theoretical grounding. Most analyses are univariate, providing insight into the impact of age or of gender, for example, but rarely both together (see, e.g., Biegel, Magaziner & Baum 1991). Even multivariate analyses reveal little about the social processes by which older men and women come to acquire or sustain over time the constellation of people who help them.
Age differences provide only a limited understanding of possible life course differences in social support. Many authors point to a need for more fine-grained research on the interactions among family formation,health and functioning at older ages (e.g., Gibson & Jackson 1987; Jackson, Chatters, and Taylor 1993; Jones 1989). Two leading researchers of the Black family write that little
" ... attention has been devoted to understanding life course variation in
the nature of supportive relationships. ... The nature of the life course
embodies more than chronological aging, and encompasses the nature, pattern,
timing of life roles and life events. ... [and] is subject to variation as
the result of factors such as social status (e.g., race, socioeconomic
status) as well as differences due to historical and social change" (Taylor
& Chatters 1989: 246-248).
Using data from a semi-longitudinal, primarily qualitative, study of older African American women and men in an inner-city area, the article examines the impact of gender--in the context of the life course--on the size, composition and activities of informal social support networks in old age. Despite equal availability, the daughters of women and of men were differentially involved in providing informal support to their dependent parents. We suggest that such gender differences come about because aspects of the life course other than age alone affect informal social support in old age. Informal social support networks compensate for the various forms of social and economic marginalization, and for exclusion from formal services and institutions, that African Americans have experienced throughout their lifetime. The construction of gender in Black society and the historical structure of economic opportunity for Blacks--especially for Black men--in the wider society are used to account for gender-based differences in informal social support networks in old age.
ELDERLY AFRICAN AMERICANS
There are 2.49 million African-Americans aged 65 years or more in the United States (US Census 1992). This rapidly growing segment now comprises 8.3% of the Black population, and is expected to quadruple by the year 2050 (US Census 1992). Despite this, the elderly have not been a major focus in the Black social science literature (Peterson 1990).
Informal Social Support
The concept of informal social support and support networks, however, has been a consistent theme in research and writings on elderly Black Americans (Taylor & Chatters 1989, p. 245). Generally, such research shows that as people age so the amount of help increases, particularly instrumental help, from spouses, children, kin and others. Among Black Americans, religious institutions are also very important sources of informal social support. Compared with whites, Black elderly tend to have larger, better connected, more extensive, and longer lasting networks whose members provide a greater variety of services.
African American families are not monolithic but, rather, are diverse and heterogeneous in composition and function (Taylor and Chatters 1991, Ford et al. 1991, Spitze and Miner 1992). Even so, there are certain regularities across different family types. For example, ethnographic studies, supported by nationally representative surveys, have shown African American families to have extensive social support networks composed primarily of close and distant kin, and secondarily of friends, church members, and neighbors (Aschenbrenner 1973, 1975; Chatters, Taylor, and Jackson 1985, 1986; Stack 1974). These informally organized social support networks are resilient, flexible, and resourceful. They are an adaptive response to difficult and changing economic and social circumstances, and have evolved into a crucial part of African American culture (Ford, Harris, and Turner 1991; Groger 1992, 1994; Hudgins 1992; Johnson and Barer 1990; Jones 1989).
Stack (1974) and others report that the support networks of African Americans are female-centered while men tend to occupy positions which are more peripheral (Aschenbrenner 1973, 1975; Jewell 1988; Liebow 1967; Scott and Black 1989). This aspect of African American families was characterized at one point as pathological and dysfunctional (Moynihan 1965). Such characterizations, however, were made without situating African American families within an historical, social or economic context (Jewell 1988; Liebow 1967; Stack 1974). The legacy of not being able to participate economically or socially as full-fledged members of American society left its mark on the African American family, and helps to explain why throughout the life cycle African American family composition does not mirror the mythical "ideal" American nuclear family.
As for the general U. S. elderly population, within the support networks of elderly African Americans, spouses are the first choice as a primary caregiver, followed by children, usually daughters (Chatters et al. 1986; Johnson and Barer 1995; Smerglia et al. 1988). It has been reported previously that men are less likely to chose daughters as an informal helper than are women (Chatters et al. 1986). Generally, women are more involved with caregiving than are their male counterparts (Chatters et al. 1985; Taylor 1985; Taylor and Chatters 1991) although some studies have failed to find a gender difference in the giving or receiving of informal support (Taylor 1986; Chatters and Taylor 1993).
In general, having children is associated with larger support networks (Chatters et al. 1985; Taylor 1985; Taylor and Chatters 1991; Taylor 1986). For elderly African-Americans with children, advanced age is associated with increases in the frequency of help from kin and church members; for elderly African-Americans without children, however, advancing age signals a decrease in the amount of informal support received, from both kin and church (Taylor 1985; Taylor and Chatters 1989). Those without children might have smaller networks but are rarely totally bereft of informal social support. They are generally successful at incorporating more distant kin or non-kin (often, church members, neighbors or co-workers) into supportive roles through the creation of fictive kin relationships (Groger 1992, 1994; Johnson and Barer 1990; Taylor 1985). Coward and colleagues (1996), using a nationally representative sample derived from census data, show that Blacks of both genders and at all ages are more likely than their white counterparts to live with collateral relatives or non-kin, especially if resident in central city areas.
In a sample of 575 middle aged and elderly African American respondents from a national probability sample, Spitze and Miner (1992) found that, compared to elderly women, elderly men had significantly less contact with adult children. However, the most pronounced gender difference was from living alone: men who lived alone had less contact with their children than women who lived alone. This finding hints at the vulnerability of single elderly African American males, due to isolation from their families. For men, having daughters (but not sons) was found to increase the number of visits from children, whereas for women the gender of the child(ren) had no effect upon frequency of visiting (Crawley 1987; Spitze and Miner 1992).
Most studies have found either no association or only an equivocal association between income, education, occupation, socio-economic status, or functional status, and the provision of informal social support to aged African Americans (Gibson and Jackson 1987; Petchers and Milligan 1987; Taylor 1985, 1986; Taylor and Chatters 1991; Spence and Atherton 1991). Spitze and Miner (1992) found the needs of the elder to be unrelated to frequency of contact with children. Chatters (1985) found the size of respondents' network and the selection of informal network helpers (Chatters, Taylor and Jackson 1986) were not related to health/need factors, but the choices for informal helpers were made "within the context of existing interpersonal relationships" (Chatters et al. 1986, p. 100).
Compared to the general U. S. elderly population, use of formal services--especially institutionalization in nursing homes--is low among elderly African Americans (Groger 1994; Spence and Atherton 1991). Moreover, use of formal services does not correlate with amount of informal assistance received (Spence 1991). A variety of sometimes contradictory views are forwarded to account for this: the superior informal social support network of elderly Blacks compared to Whites, on one hand, is frequently pitted against factors such as greater poverty, more discrimination, different cultural values, compression of generations, and greater strains of caregiving among Whites compared to Blacks, on the other hand (Groger 1994).
In summary, cross-sectional studies have examined informal social support to elderly African-Americans in relation to: …