Non-Family Relationships May Be Increasingly Important in Aging

Previous research presented in aging in action suggests that a diverse social network, one that includes non-family, is associated with improved health, well-being, and access to resources in later life. Multiple recent social changes in much of the industrialized world have increased the relevance and availability of non-family social networks for older adults. At the same time, theories of aging, namely socioemotional selectivity theory and exchange theory, have been used to argue that many older adults will prioritize closer family ties as they age, allowing more distant and non-family ties to lapse. An article in the Journals of Gerontology examines changes in the non-family social networks of older adults.

The study was based on longitudinal data on two cohorts of older adults in the Netherlands. The investigators used multi-year data collected since 1992 to compare the social networks of older adults born between 1908 and 1922 with those of individuals born between 1923 and 1937. Data was collected through interviews that asked about the social networks of participants, as well as health and other relevant demographic information, such as education and employment history. Because the data were collected at different points in time, the investigators were able to compare changes in social network composition across the two cohorts.

The analysis showed that older adults in the 1908 to 1922 cohort showed significant decline in non-family relationships with aging, while those born after 1922 saw no decline in their non-family relationships. The authors suggest that changing social conditions and patterns of family life may explain such difference. While it is unclear to what extent these findings would be generalizable to other countries, they highlight the fact that the experience of aging can change over time and across social environments.


Suanet B, van Tilburg TG, and Broese van Groenou MI. Nonkin in older adults’ personal networks: more important among later cohorts? Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (2013). DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbt043


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