WITH families here shrinking, can a wider network of relatives be relied on to help if someone becomes frail or ill?
That is what the Government is trying to find out, with what is believed to be its first study on the extended family, and the extent of care and support it can provide.
The data to be obtained by April next year may then be used for policy tweaks to encourage people to support their aunties, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins and other relatives.
These could include housing grants for extended family members if they live nearby, or tax exemptions if they top up their loved ones' Central Provident Fund accounts, for instance.
This study, which started last month, marks a milestone in social policy thinking, said experts, because it is moving away from the Government's traditional proxy for families - the nuclear household where a couple live with their parents or children.
The reason for the shift is that the number of nuclear families is falling.
Last year, fewer than half of resident households here were nuclear families, down from six in 10 households 15 years ago.
In contrast, one-person households and those headed by married couples who are childless or not living with their children have almost doubled - from 175,000 in 2000 to 300,000 last year.
They now make up one in four of all households.
So the Government is exploring support structures, relations and living arrangements among extended family members.
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin hinted at the direction his ministry may take at the Social Service Partners Conference last month.
"Fewer nuclear family households, small household sizes and more aged households portend possibly greater challenges in marshalling immediate family support," he said.
"When I have fewer children to support me and my spouse, what happens then?
"Do we begin to look at the extended family? What does it mean for policies?"
The survey, funded by the ministry, will involve 1,500 people aged 55 and above who are either single or married but childless.
Some of their caregivers will also be interviewed.
It is expected to examine household composition, caregiving arrangements and how far extended family members live from each other, among other factors.
It also aims to understand the attitudes and perceptions people have of the extended family's role, such as whether people expect their extended family to support them, or if their understanding of "family" means nuclear family.
The study will also look at the challenges faced by extended family members in providing such care, and identify solutions or support measures to encourage them to do so.
The head of Reach Counselling, Mrs Chang-Goh Song Eng, said extended family support for heavy caregiving duties, such as taking care of someone who is bedridden, is usually not forthcoming.
"Usually people are okay imposing on or bothering their immediate siblings if they can't turn to their children, but the line stops there because they feel that relatives are not obliged to be responsible for them," she said.
Touch Community Services' seniors cluster network director Julia Lee agreed, adding that the authorities need to come up with ideas to encourage extended families to be more involved.
She said: "The social isolation and health issues of the elderly who live alone are very urgent."