Why Do Older Adults Have Smaller Social Networks?
According to Socioemotional selectivity theory, older people have relatively small social networks that include family and close friends. In contrast, young adults have larger social networks that include family, friends and social partners. Most theories attribute the smaller social networks in older adults to losses of friends or family due to illness that causes limited access to socializing, and death which results in a reduction of their social network.
Socioemotional acknowledges the death of family members and friends as one of the factors but it also suggests that the reduced networks are a result of older adults perceiving their time as limited and reflecting in emotional goals. Therefore; older adults choose to spend their time with people who meet their emotional needs (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999).
Remarriage, cohabitation, and grandparents taking the role of parents also impacts the nature of social relationships in later life. Close relationships are very important to humans, regardless of the age. Remarriage and cohabitation in the older population has increased recently and studies show that there is no significant difference between couples cohabitating or married in terms of emotional satisfaction, pleasure, openness, and time spent together (Brown and Kawamura, 2010). What impacts the nature of the relationships is the interaction amongst new family members. If there is any negative interaction between new family members such as criticism, rejection, competition, violation of privacy, and lack of reciprocity, older adults experience problematic relationships (Krause and Rook, 2003).
On the other hand, if the new relationships are positive, the addition of step-siblings and spouses increases older adult’s social networks and provides them with more social support as they age. Depending on how well everyone involved adjusts to the new family members, will affect older adult’s social relationships positively or negatively.
When grandparents take the caregiver role for their grandchildren, it reduces the older adult’s social network and most likely, affects them negatively. One reason is that they will have to switch their priorities from socializing and enjoying their retirement to being a care giver and most likely, will not receive the social support they need. This will cause them to feel isolated and experience loneliness because they feel that their friends can’t relate to them (Hayslip and Kamiski 2005). On the other hand, when grandparents are part of their grandchildren’s lives but not in the caregiver role, it has a positive effect on the older adult and it adds to their social network.
Keeping balanced social networks it’s important for older adults, they should be encouraged and supported to keep and stay active in their social networks.