Thursday, 22 April 2010

Will you still need me, will you still feed me? The amount of emotional or instrumental support that you receive from your social network, and the amount that you give, can be calculated and represented on a reciprocity scale. So you might give a lot of practical help to others and not need much yourself at the moment, scoring positively for instrumental reciprocity. You could have been going through a hard time and be needing more emotional support than you've been able to offer others, scoring negatively for emotional reciprocity. Back in 1992, as I've been reading, some Dutch researchers plotted these scales for a large sample of older people. As we'd expect, instrumental support given decreases sharply with age. The researchers found that instrumental reciprocity began to decrease at the age of 64, echoing that rather crummy Beatles song. More interestingly, they identified a turning point, where a relative surplus of instrumental support given changes into a relative deficit, at approximately the age of 66. Of course, you can expect your social network to decrease in size as you get older, and your reciprocity scale will also be affected by living in a care home where most of your instrumental needs are going to be catered for. The research seems to suggest that a sizeable minority of older people do deliberately seek to increase the amount of emotional support they give as their ability to provide instrumental support declines. Unfortunately, as a society we're not very good at providing contexts for emotional support, so that too many older people experience a sense of dependence rather than interdependence, submerged below the hoizontal line in the graph. I'm hoping there has been some follow up to this research: I've not found it yet, but would be keen to learn of it. van Tilburg et al. Flow of support. In: Living arrangements and social networks of older adults, VU University Press, 1995.

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