How does everyday, informal support work?

Everyday helping relationships may be complex, but we do need to know how they work, says Ilona Haslewood.

Everyday helping relationships may be complex, but we do need to know how they work, says Ilona Haslewood.

We ask someone to look after our car while we are away. We drop off some shopping for a neighbour, or babysit for a friend. For the most part, it’s everyday, mundane stuff - just a bit of help, an instance of kindness. Compared with paid support services, informal help and support is a large, much less understood territory. However, we do need to better understand how informal support works, for lots of reasons.

For us as individuals, one simple reason is that we need to be conscious of the value of our support networks and how this changes over time. JRF’s work on improving quality of life for older people suggests that as we age, our personal networks tend to shrink. Nevertheless, they perhaps become even more important, for practical as well as social and emotional reasons. When we make decisions about where and how we want to live in later life, access to our networks should be among the key factors to take into account. We tend to highly value our independence, but don’t always acknowledge that it might have consequences for others around us if we turn down offers of help. Likewise, offers of help without a chance to ever reciprocate may make people feel vulnerable and result in rejection and withdrawal: are there ways in which this could be avoided?

In policy, the narrative we often hear about everyday help and neighbourliness is that we live increasingly insular lives, don’t have the time or inclination to get involved and feel nervous about helping out others in case something goes wrong. We also see statistics about the increasing number of older people who will need help. Add to this ongoing reductions in public funding, the welfare cap, the high cost of social care and it’s not difficult to see why policy makers are inclined to look to potential sources of informal support, such as neighbours and friends, as an ‘untapped resource’ , calling upon us to be kinder and more neighbourly.

New research is beginning to find that each exchange of everyday help reveals layers of other exchanges, relationships and degrees of trust built up over time. It’s becoming clear too that despite a lack of awareness, risks and costs are considered in each exchange, and often strict rules are applied about reciprocation and the acceptability of favours. Accounts of everyday help also tell stories about people moving in and out of a community and being included in, or excluded from, support networks (for example because of a lack of roots, illness or disability).

With a better understanding of everyday help, such as the time it takes to build up this kind of relationship, expectations and solutions are more likely to be realistic. A better understanding will also help highlight the conditions that leave people vulnerable and excluded from informal networks. If we understand more, we can support these relationships to flourish, by creating spaces where people can get together, or by supporting people to put their ideas into action.