A published secondary analysis of the National Social Life, Health and Aging (NSHAP) project focused on the relationship of older Americans’ social networks with three indicators of well-being: happiness, loneliness, and anxiety. The study served at least two purposes: assessing whether or not a classification of social network types identified in earlier research is useful for this large-scale American data, and determining if these social network types can be used to help improve the subjective well-being of older adults. The authors identified five robust social network types in the data and provided four practical implications of their work.
Based on the extensive data gathered in the NSHAP study, the authors found five basic social network types among older adults in the U.S. Four of them had been found in previous studies of network types in other countries: socially diverse networks, friend-based networks, family networks, and restricted networks. Diverse networks are those that include family members and non-family friends. Restricted networks are those with a small number of family or non-family friends. The authors also identified a type not found in the previous studies: the congregant network, which describes the social network of individuals whose social networks primarily consist of people with whom they attend church services. Friend networks were the most common, with more than 27% of subjects being embedded in such a network, while congregant and family networks were the least common.
These classifications of the social networks of older Americans were distinct from one another in their relationships with the three well-being outcomes. Networks that included a more diverse range of social ties seem linked to better well-being when controlling for demographic and health status. Because of the cross-sectional design of the study (data collected at one point in time), it cannot be determined if social network type influences well-being or whether people with similar senses of well-being tend to cluster together. Identifying these different types, however, helps draw attention to the fact that older Americans have diverse types of social networks, types than can be useful in identifying ways to enhance well-being.