Older people’s family relationships in disequilibrium during the COVID-19 pandemic. What really matters?
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Description: Inter- and intragenerational relationships are known to be important in maintaining the wellbeing of older people. A key aspect of these relationships is the exchange of both emotional and instrumental social support. However, relatively little is known about how this exchange of support changes in the context of widespread disruption. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to examine how older people's family relationships are impacted by such social change. The present qualitative study explores how older people in the United Kingdom experienced changes in inter- and intragenerational support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants (N = 33) were recruited through a large-scale nationally representative survey (https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/psychology-consortium-covid19). We asked how life had been pre-pandemic, how they experienced the first national lockdown and what the future might hold in store. The data were analysed using constructivist grounded theory. This paper focuses on the importance of family relationships and how they changed as a consequence of the pandemic. We found that the family support system had been interrupted, that there were changes in the methods of support and that feelings of belonging were challenged. We argue that families were brought into disequilibrium through changes in the exchange of inter- and intragenerational support. The important role of grandchildren for older adults was striking and challenged by the pandemic. The significance of social connectedness and support within the family had not changed during the pandemic, but it could no longer be lived in the same way. The desire to be close to family members and to support them conflicted with the risk of pandemic infection. Our study found support for the COVID-19 Social Connectivity Paradox: the need for social connectedness whilst maintaining social distance. This challenged family equilibrium, wellbeing and quality of life in older people.