Discussions about the health of older adults often focus on physical changes and disease processes. Research has demonstrated, however, that the social aspect of the lives of older adults is an important component in health outcomes. This social aspect is harder to define and to study than the physical side of aging, but an understanding of the concept of a social network is a good beginning.
The quality, type, frequency and emotional satisfaction of one’s social ties determine his/her social connectedness. Observing, measuring and evaluating these factors can be difficult as this data involves not only objective information but individual perceptions (subjective information) as well. Objective information will include data such as the size of an individual’s social network, the frequency of participation in social activities, and the availability of personal and community social supports. Subjective data includes items such as an individual’s sense of belonging and his/her beliefs about the quality of relationships within his/her social network.
Social networks are the connections which individuals develop within their families, workplaces, and communities. They are comprised of both the physical and psychological resources which are available to assist individuals obtain information, services, and emotional support for their daily lives. Family members, friends, neighbors, church congregations, co-workers, volunteer organizations, community services, and private businesses within a community all contribute to an individual’s social network. Studies have determined that the composition and quality of one’s support network, as well as the relationships involved in the provision of these supports, have a greater influence on an individual’s life than the number of people within one’s social network.
The composition and effectiveness of a social network depends upon multiple factors. An individual’s temperament and choices play a significant role, but outside factors also influence the network. Personal preferences, health status, financial resources, the availability of transportation, and the personalities of family/friends will impact decisions about the frequency, duration, setting, and extent of one’s social interactions. Environmental factors which affect social networks include details about the communities in which individuals live; such as the types of services which are available, perceptions of safety and neighborhood cohesion, and general setting (rural, suburban, or city). Individuals will have varying levels of control over these factors, which can create challenges for navigating and improving one’s network. In addition, social networks with a similar physical composition may have different levels of effectiveness due to the diverse personalities and perceptions of the individual people within each network.
Adding to the complexity of social networks is their frequently changing nature. The expansion of social networks can occur when individuals choose to participate in volunteer work, travel, attend a senior center, or move to a retirement community. Retirement, neighbors who move, and friends and family members who pass away are examples of losses which older adults may experience in their social networks. When older adults have limited social networks to begin with, or experience significant losses in their social networks (such as the death of a spouse), they may be at risk for social isolation. Social isolation can impact health both psychologically and physically. Next week we will examine some of the risk factors for social isolation and the negative health outcomes which may result. An awareness of these issues may have an impact on our choices within our own social networks, as well as influence our interactions with those in whose social networks we are members.
Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN