How the social representation of family is structured in elderly residents of intergenerational homes


Doane Martins da SilvaI; Alba Benemérita Alves VilelaII; Denize Cristina de OliveiraIII; Marta dos Reis AlvesIV

I Nurse. Master degree student in the Graduate Program in Nursing and Health from the State University of Southeast Bahia. Jequié, Bahia, Brazil. E-mail: doane.ef@hotmail.com
II Nurse. Ph.D. in Nursing. Professor Nursing Graduate Course from the State University of Southeast Bahia. Jequié, Bahia, Brazil. E-mail: albavilela@gmail.com.br
III Nurse. Ph.D. in Public Health. Professor of the Graduate Program in Nursing from the State University of Rio de Janeiro. Brazil. E-mail: dcouerj@gmail.com
IV Master degree student in the Graduate Program in Nursing and Health the State University of Southeast Bahia. Jequié, Bahia, Brazil. E-mail: martareisalves@yahoo.com.br

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12957/reuerj.2015.8739




This qualitative study analyzed the structure of representations of family in elderly residents of intergenerational homes, using the structural approach of Social Representations Theory with 75 older adults registered in the Family Health Strategy catchment area of a municipality in Bahia State. Data were collected during the first half of 2013 through free evocation by the inductor term ‘family’, and analyzed using EVOC software. A probable core was observed, structured from the terms ‘base’, ‘union’, ‘everything’ and ‘companionship’, while peripheral elements comprised terms such as ‘care’, ‘love’ and ‘respect’. Both sets were affirmative. It was concluded that the representational structure reveals strong, family-related affective content in older adults.

Keywords: Family; aging; older adults; social psychology.




Developing countries, including Brazil, are living a demographic transition process that affects the aging population1. It is estimated that by 2025, Brazil will be the sixth country in the world in number of elderly, reaching about 30 million individuals2. Between 2000 and 2010, the population 60 years old and over has increased substantially, from 14.5 million to approximately 20.6 million, representing 11% of the population 3.

Aging associated to economic and social changes together with industrialization and modernization of societies, has affected the constitution of Brazilian families, as they also age. This can be measured by the increase in the proportion of families in which there is one or more elderly, whether as the head of the house or living together with children and/or grandchildren, which means a simultaneity generation4.

Families living together has become a widespread practice in living placement of older people, due to the postponement of the departure of the children for economic reasons, but also for the inclusion of older people in the residence of their children as result of the care necessity4. Generally, it found that living together is observed when older people report serious health conditions and greater functional dependence 5.

In this perspective, the prolongation of life, especially in developing countries, where public policy for aging need effectively to consolidate, and the family is the first and essential resource available to the elderly. Thus, the intergenerational families as flow of support, resources and care among the elderly and their family is an important survival strategy for them.

In this scenario, it is fundamental to understand the structure of the representations that the elderly built about family in the midst of this new family placement, marked by intergenerational families.

Studies about the elderly are of great importance, because they deal with a complex reality with many changes in various spheres, as the composition of family placements.

Thus, it is important to analyze the family representations for elderly residents in intergenerational homes, since some time ago, there was not so long and intense contact between the different generations of the same family as today. At the same time, it is emphasized that studies on social representation with the family topic subsidizes the construction of knowledge about the consensual universes of individuals involved in the process on living with the family.

From these considerations, the objective of this study is to analyze the representational structure of elderly residents in intergenerational households about family.



This is a qualitative research, developed with the support of the Theory of Social Representations, in its structural perspective or also called as Central Core Theory6.

In this context, social representation is defined as a process of a mental activity, in which an individual or a group reassembles his/her reality giving a certain meaning7. According to the Central Core Theory the organization of a social representation has the characteristic of being organized around a central core, consisting of one or more elements that give meaning to the representation and provide a rigid sense and not negotiable8.

The research was developed with elderly people registered in the coverage area of a Family Health Strategy (ESF) in the urban area of the city of Jequié - Bahia. Data collection was performed with 75 elderly registered in the ESF, living in intergenerational households (two or three generations), 60 years old or more and with sufficient degree of cognition to respond to data collection instruments, evaluated according to the Mini Mental State Examination scores (MEEM), proposed by the Ministry of Health9. The subjects were located through the Community Health Agents.

The technique of free evocation was used to collect data, using the word family as an inductor term, during the first half of 2013, through home visits. The technique application was to ask the elderly to speak five words or phrases that immediately have in mind regarding the referred term10,11 being immediately recorded by the researcher.

These words from technique were typed and grouped in alphabetical order, generating a dictionary that guided the categorization of evocations, grouping words with similar meanings. The product of the evocations was organized previously, constituting a corpus of analysis.

The material was then treated by software EVOC (2003 version) that enables an organization of terms generated as a function of the underlying hierarchy of the frequency and the average order of evoking (OME) and favors the construction of the chart of four spaces. The program calculates and reports for the whole corpus, the simple rate of each word evoked, the average orders of each word of evocation and the average of the average evocation orders or rang 10, which in this study followed the natural order of evocations produced by the subjects.

The use of the program generated reports that enabled the construction of the chart of four spaces, proposed by Vergès12. When combining two attributes related to the words or the evoked expressions, which are the frequency and the order they were mentioned or hierarchized, this technique enables the distribution of produced terms according to the importance given by the subjects10.

The chart of four spaces corresponds to four quadrants with four sets of terms. In the upper left quadrant, there are the most common terms and more readily evoked and they are probably the core of the study representation. In the lower left quadrant, there are the contrasting elements; the upper right quadrant is called as first periphery and the words located in the lower right quadrant is the second periphery of representation8.

The study followed the ethical prerequisites recommended by Resolution 466/2012 of the National Health Council. Thus, the project was approved by the Ethic Committee in Research (CEP) of the State University of Southwest Bahia (UESB), Opinion at 163,351/2012 and authorized from the Municipal Health Department of Jequié for the research at USF, besides the permission of the subject, expressed in signing the consent form.



The corpus analysis Formed by the evocation of elderly people surveyed found that, in response to the family inductor, there were 339 words evoked, with 278 similar and 61 different. The rang, that is the average of the average order of evoking was 2.8, while the average rate was 12, and the minimum, 5. See Figure 1.

FIGURE 1: Table of four spaces evocations of older people living in intergenerational households with the inductor family Jequié-BA, 2013.

The information presented in the chart of four spaces show the appearance rate of principles and the natural order of evocations schematically allowing translate these elements into quadrants with different meanings.

The elements placed in the upper left quadrant are possibly the elements belonging to the central core, having high rate accompanied by low order of evocation10. For this reason, the elements that may constitute the core of social representation of family are considered for the elderly in intergenerational homes.

Despite the importance of the central core elements concept by the subjects studied10, it is important to stress that not everything in this quadrant can be considered as central, but the central core is between them13. These elements characterize what is more consensual and stable of the representation, being less sensitive to changes in the external environment or the daily practices of the subjects6.

Then, the words base, union, and companionship appear in this quadrant and complementary to each other, directing for a family concept of an essential unit for the process of living of these elderly, an affective institution, expressing the social norms about it.

In this quadrant, the word base is highlighted, being the first more often rate and the second average order of evocation, which places it as the most important component of the central core, and the word everything as the more readily evoked, expressing a evaluative nonspecific, completeness and wholeness dimension assigned to the family by these elderly.

The family can be considered the most important institution for human organization in society4, providing the affective investments necessary for the development of its components, being an indispensable space for the survival and protection of the elderly and privileged space for the deepening ties solidarity14.

The words union and companionship, also present in the first quadrant, have core meanings related to the evocations happiness and respect (first periphery) and peace, live well and harmony (contrasting elements) reinforcing the idea of harmonic intergenerational and affective relationships in the family.

It is noteworthy that elderly experiencing positive aspects in intergenerational relationships feel more positive about themselves and their world, best supporting diseases, stress and other difficulties15. However, living with two, three, or more generations in the same house is the setting for conflict in intergenerational relationships due to different cultural experiences, behavior, attitudes and values between generations 16.

In this context, the conflicting intergenerational living is due to the fact that the younger generation differs from the elderly generation about the goals that must be achieved, the values that should be respected and the criteria to discern what should or should not be discarded17.

In this way, it is important to note that although intergenerational relations can be solidary, because they help at certain times of life, there is a need for understanding between generations and this must be practiced among its members, in order to foster the integration between the different age and thus reducing the conflict within the family.

In the upper right quadrant of the chart of four places, there are the words that had a high rate, but whose average order in the evocation order was not enough to integrate the central core, called as the first elements periphery. In this space of representation, there is the presence of the terms care, love, happiness, respect and help. It should be noted that this positive configuration of family from the first periphery, is unfolded the so-called second periphery (lower right quadrant).

It can be observed that the evocation of these terms permeates and pervades the understanding of the roles traditionally assigned to the family, such as protection, care, affection and transmission of moral values, as respect18. As a mediator between man and society, the family is the dynamic unity of the relationships of affective, social and cognitive nature that are immersed in the material, historical and cultural conditions of a given social group19.

Within some of the first periphery elements, the word care is highlighted, showing a higher rate than all the words of the other quadrants. The family should be seen as generating its own care system, which varies according to the culture, reflected in their knowledge about what is health and health deviation, with values and beliefs that are being structured in their daily lives20.

The family care is characterized by actions and interactions in the family system targeted to each of its members to strengthen their health and welfare. Therefore, this care has a significant importance in family health conditions and in particular the family of the elderly. Such families have assumed an increasing share of responsibility in home care, since there is a significant increasing of chronic diseases affecting older people21.

The words care and help, may reflect that cohabitation of the elderly with their children and/or grandchildren contributes to the family intergenerational solidarity that can reverse on improving the quality of life of the elderly and other generations.

In Brazil, the family is the main source of care for the elderly population. In fact, poor families with elderly people live together many generations in order to help themselves. The younger generations, often unemployed, enjoy the income of the older, and they enjoy the care provide by the younger offered at home5,22.

The word love also deserves attention from the elements of the first periphery, since it is the second most rate and being more readily evoked. This term reveals that the family is understood as a group of individuals who are bound by a deep emotional connection23, deep emotional bonds permeated by feelings of love. It is also emphasized that the lexicon love reveals that elderly represent their families as a barn in that anchor their lives, and expression of key support and recovery of affection.

The evocation of the term happiness relates family to the perception of happiness and welfare for the elderly. Studies involving representations about old age, care and quality of life showed that for the elderly, it is essential to feel valued, receiving help and emotional support from family 1,24.

The elements in the lower right quadrant, called as second periphery are those elements having lower rates and less important words in evoking order and, therefore, can be considered the most clearly peripheral elements10. In this quadrant, there are the terms support, dedication, attention, satisfaction and confidence, reflecting attributes considered essential to family dynamics.

The term support is highlighted because it was the word most rated among the elements of the second periphery, showing the family as an important source of support for the elderly. It is noteworthy that this term has a symbolic approach with the word help, from the first periphery. It is observed that the lexicon help refers to the provision of material needs in general, help to practical work and financial help. The lexicon support, seems to refer especially to the information support, as advice, suggestions and guidelines which can be used to deal with problems and solve them; and to the support called positive social interaction, related to the availability of family members to share leisure activities or providing company at home25.

Beyond this element, there is the presence of lexical attention and dedication, suggesting that for the elderly, they are indispensable attributes in family relationships, providing a harmonious living26. Thus, intergenerational relations can be solidary, providing support, affection and attention to certain vital moments, when there is understanding between the generations.

The contrasting elements terms in the lower left quadrant of Figure 1 are considered low-rated elements. However, they are important for the study subjects, since it may reveal elements that reinforce these notions in the central core or in periphery or in the existence of a minority subgroup of a different representation4. It is observed in this space of the representation structure, the words safe haven, affection, peace, live well, children, harmony, protection and divine blessing.

The words in this quadrant support the representations of the first periphery and are focused on the perception of family as an indispensable space to ensure the well-being, survival and the full protection of its members.

It is worth mentioning that the presence of these terms refers to a family of representation as the basis for life, an institution that bringspeace and harmony to those who share it, reflecting the deep relationship built around it. The family has positive feelings, such as affection, which gives this support in facing difficulties and a safe haven, most mentioned term in this quadrant.

There is also the presence of the words live well and protection, considered as inherent attributes of the family system27.

Among the elements of this quadrant, there are also highlighted the divine blessing term, that despite its low rate, it was the most readily evoked, which expressed a family of representation anchored in something divine, reinforcing probably the family sacred symbolization.



It was found through this study that the representational structure of elderly people living in intergenerational homes about family proved to be essentially positive, representation that is based on hegemonic values in society associated with the family, which remains in the Brazilian reality, as an institution essential for the survival and care for the elderly.

Therefore, there was a representation playing traditional roles assigned to the family as care and affection. On the other hand, it should be noted that although elderly did not identified it, living together can be marked by conflicting intergenerational relationships, due to differences in social and cultural values between generations.

All the subjects had a representational structure that reflects a dimension of completeness and wholeness assigned to the family and revealing a fundamental means of care for the elderly, able to promote the material, social and psycho-affective support. The family for these elderly, is not only an important source of material support, but is it represented also as a source of satisfaction and happiness.

Despite the changes in the constitution of Brazilian families arising from population aging process, causing the formation of a new family placement, whatever is the family group, marked by intergenerational families, the study demonstrates the existence of significant symbolic stays on the family. These continuities in social representations shows the family as the basis of a structure, safe haven, a provider of care and love, revealing a strong emotional support of the elderly regarding the family.



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