4914.0.55.001 - Newsletter: Age Matters, Nov 2007  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 05/11/2007   
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Family contact and friendship for older Australians

What happens to our links with family and friends as we grow older? Does the incremental loss of family and friends mean that growing older is a path to loneliness and isolation? New information from the 2006 General Social Survey gives a picture of older people (persons aged 65 years and older) and their connections with relatives and friends.

Almost all older people (96%) living in their own homes had some form of contact with their relatives and friends who did not live with them at least once a week. Of the rest, 3% had some contact in the previous month, and 1% within three months. There were a very small number, (less than 1%) who had no relatives and friends.

When considering face-to-face contact with relatives or friends, of those aged 65-69 years, around 80% had face-to-face contact at least once a week with 20% having face-to-face contact every day. The proportion of women who saw relatives or friends weekly was very stable across the five-year age groups from 65-69 years up to 85 years and over. For men, the likelihood of seeing relatives or friends every day or weekly increased in the 85 years and over age group.

Graph: Face-to-face contact with family and friends (a)

Close to 90% of older persons had other forms of contact with relatives or friends at least once a week. Considering the forms of contact within the previous three months, 96% had talked to their relatives or friends by fixed telephone and 41% by mobile phone, 37% had interacted by mail, 18% by using the Internet and 9% by mobile phone SMS. Mobile phone and Internet were more commonly used by those in the 65-74 year age group.

Asked about high quality friendships among people not living with them, i.e. people they felt were close enough to confide in, 91% of older people reported at least one close relative, and 78% at least one close friend. Those aged 85 years and over were a little less likely to have such close relationships, 88% with relatives and 72% with friends.

Graph: Older people: close family and friends (a)

The level of diversity of people's friendships was examined. Thinking of their friends in general, not just those who were very close, all or most of their friends were of a similar ethnic background for 79% of older people, of a similar age for 65% and of a similar educational background for 54%. By geographic area, the most likely older people to have all or most friends of similar ethnic background, were those who lived in inner regional areas (87%), partly reflecting the lower levels of migrants who settle in these areas. It was less common for those in the oldest age group to have friends of a similar age (48%), though up to the 80-84 age group the proportions remained fairly constant. Of those living in areas other than major cities or inner regional areas, 51% reported all or most of their friends of a similar age. There was a large proportion of older persons who did not know whether their friends were of a similar educational background, 18% compared with less than one per cent for the other criteria, suggesting that this particular similarity was less important for many people.

Graph: Older people: friends of similar ethnic background

Most older people engaged in informal social activities, the most popular being visiting or being visited by others (87%), and going out with or meeting others for indoor activities (61%) or outdoor activities (58%). There were 7% of those aged 65 or more, and 11% of those aged 85 or more, who did not participate in any informal social activities.

The 2006 General Social Survey provides a wealth of further information on the social and economic situations of older people. See General Social Survey, Summary Results, Australia, 2006 (cat. no. 4159.0) for an overview of the available data. It is available for free download from the ABS website, https://www.abs.gov.au/.

If you have any enquires with this article please contact Elisabeth Davis on (02) 6252 7880.

Grandparent families

Families with grandchildren, including those with other relatives present, make up just 0.7% of all families in Australia yet grandparents caring for their grandchildren have become an ever increasing topic of interest in our community.

The Census has been able to determine grandchild/grandparent living arrangements for those grandchildren aged 15 and over since 1991. However, until 2006 there has not been the provision to adequately identify grandparent/grandchild relationship for those children under 15. The 2006 Census found 8050 families (0.15%) that consisted only of grandparents with grandchildren under 15. These families contained no other usual residents with any other relationship. Of these 3,270 were one grandparent families and 4,780 were couple grandparent families. A further 574 families contained grandparents and grandchildren under 15 as well as other children under 15 (with no other relatives aged 15 or more). These other children may be natural children of the grandparents, fostered or otherwise related children. There were another 995 households with non-dependent grandchildren (grandchildren aged 15+) in addition to grandchildren under 15 only.

A common assumption underlying discussion on 'Grandparent families' is that the grandparent is providing care for the grandchild. This assumption contains an element of the ability to capture 'care' relationships. However family relationships are extremely complex and varied and statistically capturing the true essence of family structure and care relationships is difficult and often beyond the scope of what the census is able to achieve. Take for example the 8,901 (0.17%) grandparent families with grandchildren all aged 15 more especially those grandchildren within the 15-24 year age group: some of these grandchildren may have been brought up by their grandparents, others may be specially living with the grandparent to provide the care.

Potentially the number of grandparent families is higher but in many cases family structures are unable to be adequately established to determine the role and care relationship within the family. The limitations of the Census to fully identify 'grandparent families' is especially apparent with the presence of other relatives in the family. A further 4,803 'Lone Parents' and 12,600 'Couple Parents' with grandchildren also had other relatives usually resident in the family. These relatives may have been their grandchild's parent or they could have been an aunt, uncle or other relative of some kind.

Nevertheless, the ability to identify and count the numbers of 'Grandparent' families, even with its limitations, will be of great interest to many people within the Australian community.

If you have any enquires with this article please contact Naomi Elliott on (02) 6252 6581.