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INSIDE TRACK: Would you step in if a neighbour needed help?

Would you help a neighbour who needed some shopping picked up?

Or if they needed their dog walked, or their child looked after? Why? Or if not, why not?

Fascinating new research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in Glasgow is helping shed light on some of the answers, and it isn't anything like as simple as you might think.

The Liveable Lives study is an ongoing piece of work from JRF, based in three districts in and near Glasgow: Bearsden, Maryhill and Hillhead, to explore informal networks of support.

This isn't about mapping the way people support each other in minor everyday ways, relieving the burden on statutory agencies and charities. That is plentifully researched elsewhere. The question Liveable Lives is looking to address, through interviews and diaries, is how such support happens, and why.

Its preliminary findings are set out through true incidents from the diaries of three people from Maryhill, where researchers initially focused.

They include the story of Suzie, a grandmother (surnames are not given) who collects her god-daughter from a camping trip with her young single mother Maggie.

The god-daughter can't sleep under canvas and hates camping so the whole holiday looks like being spoiled. Instead, Suzie, who has health problems, and her husband, drive down to collect the girl, a trip that takes nearly all day. Suzie then looks after her god-daughter for four days, after which she collapses exhausted and sleeps for a day.

Despite her chronic health condition she is aware how much she gets out of doing this. The relationship with Maggie is a two-way street and dependent on trust built up over a considerable time. The margin between helping and being helped is often blurred, researchers claim. "The gains from helping - such as feeling valued, useful, busy, loved, indebted to - can make this distinction almost meaningless."

Suzie buys into the notion of Glasgow as a 'friendly city' and maps of her relationships bear out the sense of community. "I didn't realise how many folk I kinda depend on," she says, but the maps show others nearby are equally dependent up on her.

That is only part of the picture though. For a semi-anonymous story, that of Ivan is surprisingly harrowing.

Living in Glasgow as a student while at the university, he expected to move away but never did. Now he lives an isolated life, unwell but unable to seek help because he doesn't want to be a burden - even though he can barely look after himself. A third story, about immigrant Ana, exposes the difficulty of knowing whom to trust.

JRF hopes the research will shed light on issues about interdependence and rebuilding communities when we are likely to need such links more as the population ages, for instance. That should certainly be the case.

I took two lessons. The close-knit community is not a myth, but less straightforward than those who hanker after "the way it used to be"would like. Meanwhile, mutual networks of trust and support we all depend on are so complex it makes you wonder whether help offered by outside agencies can ever truly match up.

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