The individual and contextual-level determinants of receiving time, money, and—to a lesser degree—emotional support, under “normal” circumstances have been widely studied (see, e.g., Brandt et al., 2009; Suanet & Antonucci, 2017). These studies suggest that needs which arise during the life course (e.g., due to age, health problems and frailty, but also at the transition to parenthood or when becoming unemployed), are decisive to explain the receipt of support (Broese van Groenou & De Boer, 2016). Moreover, they indicate family members play an important role in providing social support. Non-family ties, such as friends and neighbours mainly step in when partners and children are not around, or when they are living too far away (Schnettler & Wöhler, 2015).
Fewer studies have addressed the impact of disasters and crises on receiving different types of informal social support (Kasapoglu et al., 2004; Beggs et al., 1996; Kaniasty et al., 1990). In addition, so far we know little about who does not receive support despite being in need during a crisis (Perry et al., 2021; Gauthier et al., 2021). By “social support” we hereafter refer to any type of informal help being received privately from others, be it time, money or goods, or emotional counselling and comfort. We exclude formal services provided by governments (e.g., meals on wheels), or that are privately paid for (e.g., a cleaning help). We thus rely on a relatively broad conceptualization which is widely established in the literature (for a summary of definitions, see Barrera & Ainlay, 1983).
An Explanatory Model for Receiving Support
We argue that the receipt of (different types of) support during the COVID-19 pandemic support follows a complex pattern. This was already proposed in an early model by Andersen and Newman (1973), which was developed to predict healthcare uptakeFootnote 1. The model identifies three groups of factors, which lead to individuals seeking support, namely: need (such as life course or other risk factors), enabling (such as network embeddedness) and predisposing factors (such as socio-demographic factors, available formal services, but also attitudes). These factors may entail the characteristics of individuals (e.g., their frailty status), their networks (e.g., the availability of helpers), or the community they live in (e.g., the formal care infrastructure). However, there is little theoretical reasoning about the mechanisms behind the specific indicators utilized to depict these three groups of factors. Moreover, this theory was developed to explain healthcare usage rather than informal support, due to acute need. Hence, more specific theoretical mechanisms are needed to identify the relevant determinants of needing and receiving various types of support, and these mechanisms have to be linked to the specific situation of the pandemic.
To identify such mechanism, we enrich this model with a life course perspective and social network theory and add the concept of pandemic-specific support risks in order to account for the extraordinary situation during the lockdown (see Fig. 1). We argue that both life course and pandemic-specific risks allow a more nuanced understanding of the specific situations that require support than in the classic model (Andersen & Newman, 1973). In addition, we discuss the importance of different social ties for receiving social support (Granovetter, 1983). Moreover, we discuss the implications of the pandemic for these mechanisms. Such a model allows us to explain who does and who does not receive support during the pandemic. Moreover, this model also helps to explain which type of support is needed, such as practical support, childcare, financial aid, or emotional support, as these arise from different needs.
“Classic” life course risks entail the risk potentials due specific stages in the life course and the transitions and situations typically accompanied therewith, such as being elderly, suffering from physical constraints, having small children, or not being employed, which explain why individuals need specific types of support (Taylor-Gooby, 2004). They are represented by the downward pointing, solid, arrows from “classic” life course risks to “Receiving” and “Type of Support”. ”New, pandemic-specific risks” arose during the pandemic (Settersten et al., 2020), most notably, an entire population group being defined as a “risk group”. They create specific support needs, which bypass “classic” life course risks, as represented by the direct downward pointing arrows. They may also reinforce existing life course risks, for instance putting already precarious workers in even more vulnerable positions (as depicted by the dashed arrow from “new” to “classic” risks).
The receipt of support depends not only on need alone (Künemund & Rein, 1999), but also on the availability of supporters in one’s social network (Antonucci et al., 2010). This is depicted by the direct arrow from “Networks” to “Receiving”. Networks are the channels though which demand for support is voiced and willingness to help is communicated (Brown & Ferris, 2007; Varese & Yaish, 2000). The structure of the social network—for instance distinguishing between strong and weak ties (Granovetter, 1983)—is particularly crucial in explaining why some individuals in need do not receive support (“Unmet Need”).
Networks are not independent of life course and pandemic-specific risks (the dashed lines). Size and structure of individuals’ network vary across the life course, and close ties influence each other’s needs and resources (“linked lives”, Landes & Settersten, 2019). Moreover, the lockdown measures may limit the support potentials of strong ties or activate ties other than the “traditional” support ties (Bertogg & Koos, 2021; Carlsen et al., 2020). We discuss these implications in more detail in the following sections.
“Old” and “New” Risks for Support: Life Course and Pandemic-Specific Need
The life course framework (Elder, 1998; Mayer, 2009) provides an opportunity to explain why and when different types of need arise. As a multi-perspective, multi-dimensional framework, it allows us to integrate both support needs and support potentials in a person’s social network via the idea of “linked lives” (Landes & Settersten, 2019). The life course lens is thus very well suited to understand the complex patterns of need for and receipt of (different types of) social support during the pandemic (Settersten et al., 2020).
Broadly, four different stages in the adult life course can be distinguished: young adulthood, mid-adulthood, “young” old age, and “old” old age. These stages are typically characterised by specific life course transitions (e.g., from school to work, into or out of a partnership, into retirement, parenthood, widowhood, or frailty), and are linked to probabilities of having a certain health, family, and employment status, which links them to specific support needs (such as childcare support, personal care, practical help). Particularly, transitions between statuses constitute risks (Taylor-Gooby, 2004) and call for material, practical, and socio-emotional support to adjust to the changes they entail (Kafetsios, 2006; Thoits, 2011). Thus, different stages in the life course are associated with a different prevalence of the various types of support (Attias-Donfut et al., 2005; Broese van Groenou & De Boer, 2016).
In young adulthood, the transition into the labour market, partnership, and parenthood are pending or ongoing, increasing primarily the need for financial and childcare support (Arnett, 2000). Indeed, financial aid is most likely to be provided from older to younger generations (Attias-Donfut et al. 2005), and in most Western countries, young parents rely on informal support with childcare (Leopold & Skopek, 2015). In mid-adulthood and early old age, the density of life course transitions decreases, and individuals are more likely to be the givers than the receiver of support (Patterson & Margolis, 2019). In late old age, the number and density of life course transitions increases again, and so does the likelihood of receiving support (Kahn & Antonucci, 1980; Brandt et al., 2009). In old age, health typically declines, and chronic illnesses, mobility limitations and disabilities become more likely, limiting individuals’ abilities to take care of their household, preparing food, or getting dressed. In order to remain living in their homes, many old receive informal support (Brandt et al., 2009; Barnett et al., 2012). This age group is particularly likely to receive practical support, e.g., with running basic errands or help in the household (Suanet & Antonucci, 2017; Messeri et al., 1993). Thus, not only the likelihood, but also the types of support received vary between the different life course stages and can be explained by the health risks and parenthood status.
Besides these “classic” life course factors, the COVID-19 pandemic has made a new group of individuals dependent on social support. In Germany, a so-called “risk group” was identified on the basis of their increased risk of mortality or severe pathologies from COVID-19 (Jordan et al., 2020). It was defined by age (65 or older, despite being healthy otherwise) and chronic illnesses (such as diabetes, or immunity deficiency, which also applies to younger individuals). Individuals belonging to this group were asked to self-isolate in order to protect themselves during the first lockdown in spring 2020. Not being able to leave the house, members of this group became dependent on others, particularly to run errands for them.
The Role of Social Networks for Receiving Support
According to the convoy model (Kahn & Antonucci, 1980), the social network of a person can be described with regard to its structure (the number of overall ties, the nature of these ties, the geographic proximity to the network members) and function (different types of support given and received). Social networks have been shown to be of crucial importance for receiving social support (Antonucci et al., 2010; Messeri et al., 1993; Schnettler & Wöhler, 2015). Yet, both the structure and composition of a person’s network vary over the life course. As people age social networks tend to become smaller, more informal, and kinship centred (Carstensen, 1992; Suanet & Antonucci, 2017). Despite shrinking networks, critical life events in old age, such as frailty or widowhood, activate social support (Broese van Groenou & De Boer, 2016; Riley & Riley, 1993).
A second perspective on social networks entails the distinction between “strong” and “weak ties” (Granovetter, 1983). ”Strong” respectively “weak” ties are often defined along the lines of kinship respectively level of formality (e.g., formal membership), but these dimensions overlap (Plickert et al., 2007; Putnam, 2000). Strong ties can entail both kinship (e.g., relatives) and non-kinship (e.g., close friends) ties, but are usually informal in nature. Weak ties can entail both informal (e.g., neighbours) and formal (e.g., colleagues, members of one’s association or congregation) network contacts, and are usually not kinship-based. Weak and strong ties have been associated with different types of support: while strong ties provide often emotional and practical support (Ermer & Proulx, 2019; Schnettler & Wöhler, 2015), or financial aid (Attias-Donfut et al., 2005), weak ties are more likely provide information, job opportunities and bridge otherwise unconnected networks (Granovetter, 1983). In the following, we detail the support potentials of the different strong and weak ties for different types of support and discuss the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the support potentials from these various ties.
With regard to strong ties, previous research has shown that kinship supporters are the preferred for personal care and health-related support needs (Messeri et al., 1993), reflecting normative expectations towards family members to support each other (Cooney & Dykstra, 2011). Family members also frequently support each other with practical support, such as housework or running errands (Brandt et al., 2009) as well as financially (Attias-Donfut et al., 2005). Under conditions of a lockdown, needs are more difficult to communicate. Therefore, we argue that the more frequent contacts were with family members before the pandemic—a proxy for quality of these ties—the more likely it should be that these support potentials are also used during the lockdown.
Partners and spouses occupy a special support role. They are the most likely source for health-related care, but also emotional support (Bertogg & Strauss, 2020; Ermer & Proulx, 2019). Living in a partnership entails further benefits such as pooling economic resources (Vandecasteele, 2010) or sharing domestic work (Grunow, 2019). Because partnership relations were least affected by the lockdown measures, living in a partnership should equip individuals with a broad range of support resources, This should make them less dependent on (external) support and decrease their risk for unmet need—even under conditions of a lockdown.
Despite this prime function of family ties in providing support, non-kin strong ties are important for practical support, too, for instance when a person does not have many family ties, such as partners and children (Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2015), or when family members are living too far away to provide support (Conkova et al., 2017; Messeri et al., 1993). The extraordinary situation of the pandemic, which involves health risks and travel restrictions, may indeed have made local, non-kin, ties a viable alternatives for otherwise lacking kinship support. Thus, frequent contacts with friends may also activate support during the pandemic and protect against unmet need.
With regard to weak ties, we distinguish between formal social capital, such as membership in an association or a religious community (Putnam, 2000), and informal ties, such as neighbours and colleagues with whom one has also private contacts. Most associations in Germany rely on unpaid volunteer work (Erlinghagen, 2010). Studies indicate that such formal volunteers are often intrinsically motivated and more likely to support others informally (Choi et al., 2007). Similarly, membership in a religious community increases the support potential from weak ties. Religious individuals, too, are more likely to volunteer or support others (Bekkers & Wiepking, 2011; Krause, 2015). Thus, both being a member of a formal association or regularly joining a religious community should increase the availability of support during the pandemic, because they increase the pool of motivated informal supporters.
Strong and weak ties were differently affected by the COVID-19 containment measures. Many individuals narrowed their in-person contacts to a core network of strong ties (Arpino et al., 2020), leaving these ties less affected by the contact restrictions. Meeting with weak ties, however, was more strongly discouraged, e.g., through mandatory working from home, and the closure of voluntary associations and churches. One could thus assume that formal weak support potentials were less accessible. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, emerging support arrangements were found to be based on both weak and strong ties (Carlsen et al., 2020; Gauthier et al., 2021). Particularly neighbourhood or online-based support networks could be observed during the pandemic (Carlsen et al., 2020; Bertogg & Koos, 2021). This might counterbalance the lost opportunities of interacting with formal weak ties. Thus, both strong and weak ties should matter for support receipt.
Our theoretical considerations can be summarized in a number of hypotheses. With regard to “classic” life course risks, we assume the following:
H1a: The youngest and the oldest age group are more likely to receive support than individuals in middle and early old age.
H1b: Parents of minor children are more likely to receive support, than childless respondents or respondents with adult children.
H1c: The more severe an individual’s health condition, the more likely they are to receive support.
With regard to the type of support received, we assume the following:
H2a: Respondents who belong to the youngest age group, as well as parents of minor children, are more likely to receive childcare or financial aid than the other age groups.
H2b: Respondents who belong to the oldest age group are more likely to receive practical support than those in other age groups.
H2c: The more severe an individual’s health issues the more likely they are to receive practical support.
Turning to the new, pandemic-specific risks, we expect the following:
H3a: Members of COVID-19 risk groups are more likely to receive support.
H3b: Members of COVID-19 risk groups are more likely to receive practical support.
As regard social networks, we distinguish between strong and weak ties. For strong ties we expect the following:
H4a: Partnered individuals are less likely to report receiving support than partnerless individuals.
H4b: Partnered individuals are less likely to report unmet need.
H4c: Respondents who met family members and friends, and colleagues more frequently before the pandemic are more likely to receive support during the pandemic.
H4d: Respondents who met family members, friends, and colleagues more frequently before the pandemic are less likely to report unmet need.
With regard to weak ties, we assume that:
H5a: Individuals who are a member of one or several voluntary associations or take part in religious meetings more frequently are more likely to receive support.
H5b: Individuals who are a member of one or several voluntary associations or take part in religious meetings more frequently have a lower likelihood of experiencing unmet need.