Social support

Social support can come in different forms such as:

  • instrumental support (help with personal care, household chores, transport or finances)
  • emotional support (offering empathy and affection)
  • informational support (providing advice and guidance).

Social support is not a one-way relationship; it is built on the ties people have with other individuals, groups, and the broader community (Lin et al. 1979). In addition to receiving support from others, people often provide support to others.

Measures such as social participation and social engagement are commonly used to examine social support. These factors may influence the nature of the social support networks available to older people. Continuing engagement in social and community life is also an important factor in active ageing (WHO 2002).

This page looks at social participation, social engagement and isolation. Throughout this page, ‘older people’ refers to people aged 65 and over. Where this definition does not apply, the age group in focus is specified. The ‘Older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’ feature article defines older people as aged 50 and over. This definition does not apply to this page, with Indigenous Australians aged 50–64 not included in the information presented.  

Social participation

Unpaid informal care provision

Some older people are carers, providing informal assistance (help or supervision) to other people, such as those with disability or older people. The 2018 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) estimated there were 647,000 older people (aged 65 and over) providing care. Older carers represented around 1 in 6 (17%) of the total older population and just over half (51%) of older carers had disability (ABS 2019a).

Of carers aged 75–84, 54% (105,000) were men and 45% (88,600) were women. Around 7 in 10 carers aged 85 and over were men (72%, 27,400) and 30% (11,300) were women (AIHW analysis of ABS 2019b) (Figure 5.1). Note this data has been randomly adjusted to avoid the release of confidential data and discrepancies may occur between sums of the component items and totals.

Figure 5.1: Informal carers aged 65 and over by age group and sex, 2018

The column graph shows that in 2018 females constituted a greater proportion of informal carers in Australians aged 65–74 (56%), while males constituted a greater proportion of informal carers in Australians aged 75–84 (54%) and aged over 85 (72%).

Of all older informal carers, over 1 in 3 (35%, 229,000) were primary carers (that is, the carer providing the most informal assistance to a person). Around 6 in 10 (61%) older primary carers were women. Of these older women that were primary carers, 7 in 10 (71%) provided care to their partner, 13% provided care to their child and 11% provided care to their parent (ABS 2019a).

As well as the caring roles described above, older people play an important role in providing unpaid childcare. Data from the 2016 ABS Census showed that 425,000 (13%) older people had spent time in the last 2 weeks caring for a child or children aged under 15 years without being paid. People aged 65–74 (83%) were most likely to provide this care (AIHW analysis of ABS 2016).

Women more commonly provided unpaid child care (61%). However, similar to the provision of other informal care, this differed with increasing age - a higher percentage of men aged 75 and over provided unpaid child care than women (20% compared with 15%, respectively) (AIHW analysis of ABS 2016) (Figure 5.2).

Figure 5.2: Older Australians providing unpaid childcare by age group and sex, 2016

The column graph shows that in 2016 a large proportion of Australians aged 65–74 provided unpaid childcare. While a greater proportion of women aged 65–74 provided unpaid childcare than men (85% and 80% respectively), a greater proportion of men aged over 75 provided unpaid childcare than women (20% and 15% respectively).


Many older people volunteer formally through an organisation or group, or participate in other informal volunteering. Volunteering may offer an opportunity for activity, social connection and personal satisfaction.

According to the 2019 ABS General Social Survey (GSS), there were an estimated 638,000 (25%) people aged 70 and over who participated in unpaid voluntary work through an organisation in the last 12 months (26% of older women and 23% of older men). Around 1 in 2 (51%) people aged 70 and over who volunteered, volunteered for 100 hours or more in the last 12 months (ABS 2020a).

Many older people also participate in informal volunteering. Just under half (45%) of people aged 70 and over reported having provided unpaid work or support to non-household members in the last 4 weeks (ABS 2020a).

Social engagement and isolation

Many factors may affect people’s ability to participate in society and social activities, such as their health, living arrangements and access to a licence or a vehicle. According to the 2018 SDAC, the majority of older people (aged 65 and over) who were living in households had participated in social activities at home (97%) or outside their home (94%) in the previous 3 months.

In 2018, in the last 3 months:

  • Almost 9 in 10 (87%) older people reported visiting relatives or friends away from home.
  • 3 in 4 (74%) reported going out with relatives or friends.
  • 1 in 3 (33%) reported participating in sport or physical recreation with others.
  • Over 1 in 4 (28%) reported going on holiday or camping with others (ABS 2019a).

In 2018, over 3 in 4 older people (77%) living in households had participated in activities in the community in the last 12 months. In particular:

  • Around half (49%) of older people had participated in physical activities for exercise or recreation.
  • Around half (49%) had attended a movie, concert, theatre or other performing arts event.
  • 3 in 10 (30%) had visited a public library.
  • 1 in 4 (24%) had visited a museum or art gallery (ABS 2019a).

Family and community support

According to the 2019 GSS, nearly 3 in 4 (73%) people aged 70 and over had face-to-face contact with family or friends living outside the household at least once a week in the last 3 months. Many (84%) had other forms of contact with family or friends living elsewhere. The majority (95%) were able to get support in times of crisis from persons living outside the household (ABS 2020a).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on social support, see: