Informal & Formal Support Systems for Older Adults

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  • 0:01 Formal & Informal Support
  • 1:00 The Importance of…
  • 1:44 Types of Social Support
  • 3:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson discusses the importance of a social support system, particularly in the life of an older adult. Two types of supports, informal and formal, will be explored.

Formal & Informal Support

Abigail is an 85-year old woman who lives alone in her own home. She has a personal care assistant who helps her with bathing, a friend who visits every other day to chat, and a son who takes her grocery shopping on the weekends. Abigail is an older adult with a support system, a set of people and services that help maintain quality of life and social engagement.

Abigail receives both informal and formal support as she goes about everyday life. Formal support includes the services provided by professional, trained employees, typically paid for their work, such as the personal care assistant who helps her with bathing, or facilities, such as a nursing home.

Informal support includes the support provided by her social network and community, such as the visits from her son and her friend. In this lesson, we will look at how these two different types of support play a role in the lives of older adults, and why both types matter.

The Importance of Social Support

What would Abigail's life be like if she didn't have a support system? A challenging reality for many older adults is the experience of being isolated, which can have a negative impact on a person's physical and mental health and the likelihood of living a long time.

Instead, Abigail is engaged with a few key people who make all the difference in her experience of day-to-day living. She has her basic needs met, plus she has a connection with each of the people who care for her, reducing her chances of depression. Research shows that she will likely have less cognitive decline, better recovery from illness, and a more positive self-attitude if interactions with her support system are consistent and positive.

Types of Social Support

Formal and informal support networks can work together, and both are often needed to help a person thrive. For example, without a personal care assistant, a type of formal support, Abigail's son, who has a job and family, would need to find a way to take time to help his mother with personal care.

In addition, it may be her preference to not have her son assist her with the private activity of bathing if she can afford to hire someone to help instead. Formal support helps her with this personal care task, while she chooses to have informal support for activities such as grocery shopping and social visits.

Informal support can come in many forms. If Abigail had a spouse or partner or other relatives living with her, these members of the household may take on some of her care on an informal basis. Relatives not living with her may also be able to contribute.

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