Social Support Networks of Impaired Older Adults

Marcie Caryn Nightingale

PhD Thesis. 1998

The last 50 years has seen an increase in longevity and duration of life due to advances in medicine technology, and sanitation. But for many who reach their 70s and 80s, it is a period of increased morbidity. In the past, women have provided the majority of elder care, but many economic changes have caused many women to return to the work force and remain there longer. This trend has implications for the growing number of individuals who will require care. In order to discover how social support networks are constructed and maintained by older impaired adults and those who fulfill the primary caregiver role, this dissertation explores the composition and utilization of social support networks in a group of impaired elderly and their primary caregivers in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Impairments of these elders include physical disabilities, chronic conditions, and dementia. Data from 87 patients and their primary caregivers were used to determine social support network configurations of each patient and caregiver, to test the research hypotheses, and to explore the determinants of who takes on the primary caregiver role.

While the cultural norms of a group determine who is appropriate to provide care, past life course events and decisions greatly affect the possible social support network availability for both patients and caregivers. Religious beliefs in this group help individuals accept their physical impairments or caregiving responsibilities regardless of race. These data indicate that patients' care trajectories do affect caregiver burden differentially, gender is significant in care patterns chosen, a cross section of caregivers felt burden irrespective of race, and employment leads caregivers to develop denser social networks.

This dissertation contributes to the literature on universal patterns of care in general, and specifically to the literature on caregiving patterns in America. It provides an in-depth analysis of the choices made regarding provision of care for the frail elderly and challenges some previously held notions regarding variables responsible for social support network formation.