Jabeer Butt
Growing Older
The ESRC Research Programme on Extending Quality of Life



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Quality of Life and Social Support
Among Older People from Different Ethnic Groups

Research Team:
Professor Mike Fisher
Mr Jabeer Butt
Ms Jo Moriarty
Duration of Research:
June 2000 - September 2002

Mr Jabeer Butt
Race Equality Unit
King's Exchange
Tileyard Road
London N7 9AH
T el: + 44 (0)207 619 6220
Fax: + 44 (0)207 619 6230

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As the minority population of the UK ages, and as minority older people begin to demand better services, social policy will require a better understanding of their needs and circumstances. There is increasing recognition that much of the gerontological knowledge base, both theoretical and empirical, fails to address the ethnic diversity of older people. We lack nationally representative studies of minority older people that would permit detailed comparison between their experiences and those of the majority white community. This inadequate knowledge base affects our concepts both of successful ageing and of social and support networks. For example, much of the conceptual background to successful ageing emphasises independence, a notion which may be seen as far less central by minority ethnic older people who may place greater emphasis on mutuality and interdependence.

The literature on change in black and minority ethnic families makes only limited reference to social networks and social support. Although studies of carers or informal care may also provide information on social and support networks, very small sample sizes and a tendency to concentrate on certain locations in order to recruit sufficient numbers of minority ethnic groups has meant that particular urban areas have received disproportionate research attention. Research on the way obligations are negotiated within families draws primarily on fieldwork with the majority population. These factors, together with the evidence that social networks may alter as a result of caring commitments, raise questions about the extent to which we can generalise from this research.

This new study will use social networks as a starting point from which to explore social networks, social support and quality of life. It will also investigate how opportunities for social interaction and social support within social networks can contribute to successful ageing.

Aims and objectives

The study will document the patterns of social networks across two samples of minority ethnic older people and majority ethnic older people matched for age, gender, and locality. The study will use a nationally representative sample of minority ethnic older people in order to assess whether existing social network measures are appropriate for this group of older people. The achieved minority ethnic sample will permit some between-group comparisons. We will explore the relationship between factors influencing the size and content of the support networks (such as ethnicity, household type, gender, physical and psychological health status, access to health and social services) and the receipt of social support.

We will also examine the extent to which different ethnic groups have a shared notion of the concept of social support. In particular, we are interested in perceptions of interdependence and reciprocity, family obligation, what influences satisfaction and dissatisfaction with social support, and how these interact with perceived quality of life.

The study will record how respondents perceive that their social support and social networks have evolved over time, how they envisage them changing and the impact of migration and racism. This will allow a perspective on whether values within both majority and minority groups are changing between generations and how this may influence intergenerational solidarity. Lastly, the study will contribute to the wider foundations of social science by evaluating the validity of some standardised measures across different ethnic groups.

Study design

This project will draw on the Family Resources Survey, conducted by the Department of Social Security, to identify a nationally representative sample of minority and majority ethnic older people over 55. We will take a 50 per cent sample of minority households, yielding 270 potential interviewees, and a 1 per cent sample of majority households, giving 136 potential interviewees. Response rates will reduce the achieved sample to an estimated maximum of 188 minority and 94 majority respondents.

Respondents will be interviewed in their preferred language, and by an interviewer matched to their preferences as to gender, ethnic background, and age. The interview will employ a biographical approach to document the respondent's life course and to understand how current networks have evolved. Social networks will be mapped, with particular attention to their size, geographic dispersion, density/integration, composition and member homogeneity, frequency of contact between members, and strength of ties. The interview will explore how far emotional, instrumental, or financial aid is obtained from respondents' social networks, and how far this is a mutual exchange in which older people themselves are the sources of support.

A shorter interview will be undertaken with adults under the age of 55 in the household, with the aim of identifying differing perceptions of the respondents' social and support network.

Policy implications

The study will help to provide the means for social gerontology in the UK to take full account of the influence of ethnicity on social networks and social support. It will add to our knowledge of the relationship between quality of life, social support, and definitions of successful ageing in a way that acknowledges that their underlying constructs may differ between ethnic groups.

The study will test the feasibility of achieving representative samples from minority ethnic groups and will help to establish the reliability and validity of some standardised measures for use with samples from different ethnic groups. It will help to identify the extent to which income, health status, use of health and social services, access to, and satisfaction with, social support differ between older people from different ethnic groups and may produce inequalities in old age. Lastly, the study will help to improve policy for social inclusion in old age by ensuring that the preferences and priorities of older people from minority ethnic groups for social participation are documented.