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Gerontologist. 2014 Aug;54(4):670-82. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnt047. Epub 2013 May 30.

Receiving Support When Older: What Makes It OK?

Author information

  • 1Social & Community Health, The University of Auckland, Auckland 1142, New Zealand. ruthallen@pl.net.
  • 2Social & Community Health, The University of Auckland, Auckland 1142, New Zealand.



Older people are seen as needing to receive support from other people as they age. But what are the experiences and expectations older people have of being "support receivers"?


Community-dwelling childless elders (n = 38, aged 63-93) were interviewed about their experiences and expectations of support, as they comprise a group "at risk" of lack of support. Responses were analyzed within a narrative gerontology framework of positioning theory as to how receiving support was "positioned" and how it related to growing older.


Participants defined support in widely diverse ways; it was not a straightforward concept. Receiving support could be warranted by particular circumstances such as illness, made acceptable by the qualities of the support giver, and/or by being part of reciprocal exchanges across time. Support receiving was resisted when associated with difficult interpersonal dynamics or assumptions of incapacity. It was also in tension with preferred positions of being "independent" or of needing "no support." Participants positioned "oldness" negatively and as both equivalent to the need for support and as a potential outcome of being a support receiver.


This research shows that support can be hard to define and hard to receive. Needs assessors and researchers asking "Do you have enough support?" need to consider how support is positioned to better target appropriate help. Assumptions about at-risk groups can be misleading; many childless participants had a lifetime of self-support or an intentionally developed "web of contacts" at a size that suited them, even if they looked unsupported to others.

© The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Gerontological Society of America. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.


Ageism; Autonomy and self-efficacy; Childfree/less adults; Independence; Narrative methods; Qualitative research methods; Social support

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