The structure of an elderly person’s family — including such factors as marital status, number of siblings, number of children and grandchildren and the age and sex of children and other relatives — is fundamental to an understanding of the pattern of family relations within which the elderly person is located (Townsend, 1963, pp. 232–55). Thus in a large-scale study of elderly people in Britain, Denmark and the USA, family structure was found to be more important than cultural factors in explaining variations between different families in their organisation and behaviour (Shanas et al. 1968, p. 165). Moreover, the availability of family care for sick or disabled elderly people is a function of family structure and the sort of family relations that partly arise out of it. (This is not to say that family structure determines precisely who it is that provides care to an elderly relative, which is the subject of Chapter 5.) Thus answers to questions such as how often elderly people see different relatives should be of direct relevance to policy makers and planners interested in assessing the potential supply of family care and, in turn, demand for formal services, as well as to sociologists and others interested in ageing and the nature of family relations in old age.
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