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Informal care United Kingdom

6 September 2012

Networks of informal caring: a mixed methods approach

Alasdair Rutherford, University of Stirling, United Kingdom


A substantial proportion of the population engage in informal caring, with more than 40% providing informal care for at least one year over a twenty year period (Heitmueller and Michaud 2006). Informal care from family and friends is a very significant source of care in old age. Such relationships can be one-toone, many-to-one, one-to-many, and may even be reciprocal.

Although frequently modelled in the literature as being one-to-one, informal care can be complicated. The decisions of family and friends to provide informal support is entwined with the provision of formal care from the statutory, private and voluntary sectors. With an aging population, and greater pressures on the public purse, the role of informal carers in providing essential care services alongside the state is increasingly important. Informal care improves the health and well-being of carers (Cutler, Gruber et al. 2002), and reduces healthcare use and costs (Van Houtven and Norton 2006b). Pickard (2012) shows evidence of substitution between nursing home or hospital care and very intense co-resident intergenerational care for older people. However, provision of informal care is not without cost: carers' health typically suffers as a result of care provision (Schulz, O'Brien et al. 1995, Schulz, Mendelsohn et al. 2003, Schulz, Mendelsohn et al. 2003, Martire, Lustig et al. 2010, Haley, Allen et al. 2002, Haley 2003, Baumgarten, Lebel et al. 2002, Clyburn, Stones et al. 2000, Pinquart and Sorensen 2003).

In this paper we report the findings of a mixed-methods project, conducted as part of the ESRC-funded Centre for Population Change, exploring networks of informal caring. We use quantitative data from the British Household Panel Survey together with qualitative interviews conducted with older people and informal carers to describe different types of informal care networks. We explore the factors and decision-making processes that have contributed to the formation of the care networks.

For the quantitative analysis we use data in informal care provision from the BHPS in order to build a dataset of caring relationships. This relationship data can then be represented as networks of informal care, showing caring links between both household members and family outside. Formal care services can then be added to the representation of the network.

In the qualitative fieldwork we conducted interviews with older people and their informal carers in 20 households in rural Scotland. These in-depth semi-structured interviews built up housing and care histories, and allow us to build detailed caring networks for the respondents. Through a thematic analysis of the transcripts we identify key factors in the decision-making process about both care and location.

We aim to identify the factors that contribute to the formation of strong informal support networks. Combining quantitative and qualitative data sources allows us to explore both the prevalence of different network structures and explore in-depth the characteristics not captured in national surveys. We expect the findings to be useful for the formation of care policy, for organisations providing support to informal carers, and for organisations involved in the provision of formal care services to older people.


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