Social Cohesion and Help Provision in Times of COVID-19

A new study based on SHARE data examines intergenerational solidarity among older Europeans over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • In the beginning of the pandemic, the younger old (aged 50 to 64 years) provided considerably more help to their parents to obtain the necessities of everyday life than in pre-pandemic times.
  • In line with the public discourse, the oldest generation was treated as particularly vulnerable and worthy of protection by the younger old.
  • Whereas increases and decreases of help provision balanced each other out in Northern, Western and Southern Europe over the course of the pandemic, the Baltic and Eastern European countries reported strong increases over time. 
  • The authors assume that lower vaccination rates and high infection rates in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe resulted in an increased supply of help, and vice versa.
  • Individuals with poor health were less likely to provide help to others.

(November 2022) As a response to the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, governments introduced epidemiological control measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The strong limitation of social contact influenced the possibility to provide help to others. In this context, Michael Bergmann, Magdalena Hecher and Elena Sommer use data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) to investigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the private support networks of Europeans aged 50+. They find a significant increase of help provided by children to their parents in the first phase of the pandemic. In later phases, however, the dynamics of intergenerational exchange strongly varied across Europe.

SHARE data allows cross-country comparison

The researchers constrain their investigative sample to the population aged 50 years and older. For information on respondents’ socio-demographic and health characteristics, they use SHARE data from waves 1 to 8. They also draw on the SHARE Corona Surveys 1 and 2, which were executed as telephone interviews during the pandemic and contain information on participants’ social networks as well as their receipt and provision of help. With data from over 47,000 respondents from 27 European countries and Israel, the researchers are able to draw comparisons between countries and expose the effects of national pandemic-related measures as well as individual circumstances on help provision.

COVID-19 as a challenge to social cohesion

The implementation of restrictive national policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic posed a new challenge to social cohesion. While providing help to others was made difficult by the lack of in-person contact and could pose a serious risk of infection, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, many felt the need and willingness to support members of their community in the light of social isolation and reduced formal care provision. The common discourse tended to frame older generations as a homogenous and fragile group that younger age cohorts were asked to show solidarity with. In contrast to this narrative, Bergmann, Hecher and Sommer aim to understand how older people themselves provided informal help to others and how the flow of intergenerational solidarity changed throughout the pandemic.

Increased help provision to the older generation in the early pandemic

This study considers (instrumental) help provision to family members, neighbours, friends and colleagues from outside one’s own household to obtain the necessities of everyday life, such as food or medication. It compares the situation in the early pandemic phase of 2020 and one year later in 2021. For 2020, the researchers find a large increase of help provided by the younger old (50-64 years) to their parents compared to pre-pandemic times. Meanwhile, the provision of help by parents to their adult children tended to decrease during this period, supporting the public perception that the older generation was especially worth protecting.

Different developments across Europe

By 2021, the provision of help, especially by younger cohorts to the oldest population, somewhat decreased across Southern, Western and Northern Europe. These findings indicate that older, often working adults with living children and parents prioritized supporting the older generation at the beginning of the pandemic, but later restricted that support due to an increasing (double) burden. At the same time, due to widespread vaccination in these countries, there was possibly less need for instrumental help. By contrast, in the Eastern European and Baltic states, help provision to others increased with the ongoing pandemic. According to the researchers, it is likely that high infection rates and comparatively lower vaccination take-up in these countries resulted in a higher need for informal support.

Physically vulnerable groups less likely to provide help

Bergmann, Hecher and Sommer find that older respondents (80+) tended to be on the receiving end of help in everyday life. Thus, physically endangered groups in general, those with poor health and those exposed to the Coronavirus themselves, were also significantly less likely to provide help to others. However, the latter result was only found for 2020. One year later, and probably due to more security by widespread vaccinations, the negative association between self-exposure to COVID-19 and help provision disappeared. Regarding the question, whether stricter national control measures led to increased help for others, the results point in the direction that while (moderately) strict control measures in the first phase of the pandemic were associated with providing more instrumental help, very strict measures at the upper bound of the stringency index again reduced the provision of help to some extent. This observation, however, disappeared in 2021.

Study by Michael Sommer, Magdalena Hecher and Elena Sommer (2022). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the provision of instrumental help by older people across Europe. Frontiers in Sociology. DOI: 10.3389/fsoc.2022.1007107.


Photo: Adobe Stock / Konstantin Yuganov