Who Do I Call? Contact Persons and Network Configurations of the Elderly in Switzerland

Manuela Schicka, University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland, School of Social Work

Research showed already that social networks are of great importance for well-being and to avoid loneliness. It is also known that the network size decreases with higher ages and that this can lead to a lack of possible support. However, not only the network size is important, but also who is part of the network of individuals. Therefore, this study examines the composition of contact persons of elderly people in Switzerland. Data used in this research comes from a survey on social relationships of ageing persons that was conducted in four cantons in the German speaking part of Switzerland. About 1,200 persons from the age of 50 participated in this study. A paper-pencil questionnaire was sent to the randomly chosen persons. In one question the participants were asked to name those persons with whom they were in contact the past four weeks. The results show that there are differences in the number of contact persons among men and women, but also among different age groups. Furthermore, nine different profiles of contact persons could have been identified using cluster analyses. Whereas some focus more on family members, others are more in contact with friends. Configurations with low number of contacts were also found. This research shows that there exists a heterogeneity of network compositions among elderly, and that most people have many possible contacts available.

Social networks are of great importance for individuals over the whole life course. They are a source of company but also of different levels of support (emotional, physical and instrumental). In older ages the number of contact persons decreases and the risk of loneliness increases; and this is especially true for men. The socio-emotional theory explains this by the fact that in older age, individuals focus on the relationships that give emotional fulfillment and that relationships which creates tensions are avoided. As men usually focus on their professional network, their network size is rather smaller when ageing, whereas women maintain relationships outside the professional life during their life course what leads to wider networks in older age.

However, not only the size of the network is important for well-being and to avoid loneliness, but also the composition of the network. Therefore, this study wants to investigate the social relationships of ageing people. Data used in this research comes from a survey on social relationships of ageing persons that was conducted in four cantons in the German speaking part of Switzerland. About 1,200 persons from the age of 50 participated in this study. A paper-pencil questionnaire was sent to the randomly chosen persons. In one question the participants were asked to name persons which whom they were in contact the last four weeks. They could name up to four persons.

Overall, about 70% of the participants named 4 persons. Only 11 persons did not cite anybody. Women cite slightly more persons than men did. With higher age the participants cited less persons. Taken a deeper look who was cited, the results show that the partner was cited most often (if there is a partner). Women were named much more often than men, indicating that women play a greater role in the network of elder people. More concrete, participants with children (sons and daughters) cited also more often their daughter than their sons. Female friends were also cited more often than male friends.

In a next step a typology of contact persons was constructed using cluster analyses to examine what profiles of contact persons exist. Therefore, different categories of the cited persons were considered (partner, daughters, sons, brother, sister, other relatives, male friends, female friends, male colleagues and acquaintances, female colleagues and acquaintances, others), as well as the number of persons cited (1 to 4). Nine different groups have been identified. The first group are individuals who cited mostly the partner, the daughter and female friends. Almost all individuals in this group are women and they cited mostly 4 persons. The second group encompasses individuals who focus on their nuclear family. There are slightly more men than women in this group and they cited also mostly four persons. In the third group there is a higher proportion of individuals without children but with partner. Individuals of this group cited also mostly 4 persons and almost all of them are males and cited male friends. In the fourth group there are only individuals without partner and they have less often children. Individuals in this group cited more often than in other groups other relatives, possibly due to a lack of the nuclear family. Female friends are also of great importance. About three quarter of individuals in this group are women. The sixth group is characterized by rather lower number of contact persons. The partner and the children are not cited even if almost all of the individuals have a partner as well as children. About 60% of the individuals in this group are men. The seventh group is a rather divers group with no clear pattern. In the eight group the partner and other relatives are from great importance. The last group consists of individuals that focus on the partner. They also named more often only one person than the other. Two third of this group are men.

The results give interesting insights in patterns of contact persons of ageing people in Switzerland. Overall, few participants of the study gave lower contact persons. However, the profiles differ in regard of who was cited (focus on family or friends). Among those who cited less, there are more men, which confirm existing research. Further analyses will focus on the profiles of the single groups, especially on those with lower numbers of contact persons. Furthermore, the association with loneliness and life satisfaction will be examined. This research shows that there exists a heterogeneity of network compositions among elderly, and that most people have many possible contacts available.

Presented in Session 1232: Posters