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The Role of Social Networks in Later Life: Analytical Essay on Gerontology

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The World Health Organization (WHO) states that people who enter the course of later life which refers to age 60 and over, will experience the changes in physiological, psychological, and sociological perspectives (World Health Organization, 2011). In a sociological perspective, changing of social networks has been discussed in many of the studies and it’s always an eye-catching topic due to the concerns over the social implications of transitions like retirement, health decline, and bereavement. The term social network refers to the web of social relationships that surround individuals, such as family, friends, organizations, etc (Kelly, et al., 2017). Many research studies suggest that social networks become smaller and denser when people getting older, it also leads to lower rates of social contact, greater loneliness, and even high risk of social withdrawal. However, some of the elderly are also more involved in social networks, such as community activities, volunteering works (Ajrouch, Blandon, & Antonucci, 2005).

Many theories explained what happens to the social networks in an individual’s later life. Some studies explained that due to life-course experiences such as health decline, and bereavement, social network connectedness has to be hampered and the tendencies of maintaining certain types of networks are declining. This explanation also echoes the theory of social disengagement (Cornwell, 2009). Moreover, Socioemotional selectivity theory emphasizes that older adults tend to shift to emotionally rewarding ties (Charles, & Carstensen, 2010). And there are also pieces of evidence that show that aging individuals always partners restrict their social networks to shared contacts through a process of dyadic withdrawal, which leads to smaller social networks (Kalmijn, 2003). However, some of the studies have different views. Studies show that many elderlies want to stay independently, so they establish social connections. For example, retirement causes lesser social connections, but on the other hand, it allows the elderly to have more free time to join social activities, such as voluntary work, thus retirement enhances their social network connectedness (Broese van Groenou & van Tilburg, 2010).

Social network gives rise to various roles in individuals’ later life: social support, companionship, and social control. This article focuses on these 3 roles of social networks in people’s later life.

Social networks provide social support in later life which can be categorized into 4 types;

  1. Emotional support refers to provide love, trust, caring, and empathy.
  2. Instrument support which involves sustained physical care and services provided to the elderly with declined health conditions or disability.
  3. Informational support is referring to giving suggestions, information, and advice when the elderly in need.
  4. Appraisal support is providing constructive feedback for the elderly to have correct self-evaluation (Heaney, 1995).

Studies show that social support which provided by the social network is affecting people’s health in their later life (Fratiglioni, Paillard-Borg, & Winblad, 2004). The study showed that people who have been isolated socially compared to those with strong social ties have a two-fold increase in mortality (Fratiglioni, Paillard-Borg, & Winblad, 2004). There are also shreds of evidence that week social tie affects people’s mental health. Those with limited social support have an increased risk of self-harm (Dennis, Wakefield, Molloy, Andrews, & Friedman, 2005), depression (Fiori, Antonucci, & Cortina, 2006), and even cognitive decline (Bennett, Schneider, Tang, Arnold, & Wilson, 2006). In other words, strong social support promotes health and wellbeing. Social support from social networks has been found to be crucial in providing less mortality and improved psychosocial health (Kafetsios & Sideridis, 2006). Due to the increased aging population, more and more people are suffering from chronic disease, and many of the elderly with declined health conditions need consistent physical care from caregivers and the community. Bereavement also comes with aging, many of them require emotional support from social networks. Due to retirement and role transitions, many elderly are facing challenges. thus, social support is playing an important role in their later life. The broad social network is vital in providing social support in promoting the health and wellbeing of the elderly.

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Besides social support, the social network also plays a role of companionship in individuals’ later life. Companionship is a type of social involvement in shared activities, and to achieve the intrinsic goal of enjoyment or satisfaction (Rook, & Ituarte, 1999). Moreover, the aim of companionship is different as social support, it’s not about providing aids and problem-solving. Companionship is focused on experiencing pleasure. Studies have shown that companionship promotes psychological well-being, self-expression, social satisfaction, and happiness (Kafetsios, & Sideridis, 2006). With a broad social network, the elderly has been reported to have enhanced the feeling of self-worth, and decreased stress level. Moreover, social networks and companionship provide a meaningful human connection which improves their quality of life. The study has shown that companionship helps senior to combat with loneliness, it also has a significant impact in longer lifespan, promotes faster recovery, and provides peace mind. However, due to the increased aging population and decreased fertility rate, more elderly are stays alone or within a small family structure. Social network from family is limited as their children are busy with work, childcare, or other things. Moreover, due to limited mobility, cognitive decline or other age-related problems, the elderly is tending to be isolated. Therefore, the social network is restricted, and companionship is limited as well. In Singapore, the government had established plenty of the program which is able to reach the elderly who stays at home, such as befriender services. These programs allow the elderly to enter social networks again and have the benefit of companionship.

Social control is another role of social networks in later life. Social control theory emphasizes that social relationships serve as a regulatory function. Individuals who are socially integrated have lesser risk in engaging in deviant and risky behaviors (Ewart, 1991). In managing health behaviors, the elderly who involved in social activities and more social networks should practice more healthy behaviors. It leads to a better health conditions. Generally, social control always operates in two ways: direct social control which involves reminders, requests, threats, punishment ore rewards from social networks (Umberson, 1992); indirect social control refers to feelings of responsibility or obligation to others that prompt people to engage in healthy behaviors. On the other hand, the social network also encourages unhealthy lifestyles (Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992). Social control in health behaviors helps older adults in preventing or delaying the onset of disease. It also assists them in changing unhealthy lifestyles. However, people in their later life always have smaller, less proximal social networks which will result in a few encouragements of healthy behaviors. (Ajrouch, Antonucci, & Janevic, 2001).

Compared to positive effects of the social networks in later life, negative effects not occur frequently. The study showed that failed support from a social network may cause more distress, poor coping strategies, and even reduced self-esteem. Moreover, misdirected control from social networks will cause the adoption of unhealthy behaviors (Rook, 2015).

However, the characteristics and types of social networks are changing, due to the advancement of the technologies. More and more elderly start uses advanced technologies in their daily life. Social media plays a crucial role in social networks nowadays. It allows friends making more easier, they can make friends from multiple social medial Apps. Older adults are able to connect to the world without going out from home. Even they have limited mobility, mobile phones allow them to talk to others and the use of visual reality helps the elderly to have a new way to experience the world. Social media helps in fostering empathy. Many older adults are not comfortable to share their stories and feelings with people around them, they choose to share it via social media with people who care. What more, social media makes communications faster. Messages or post can be spread to another place or person within seconds, this will promote interaction between individuals. and social media makes the world smaller as well. Compared with a few decades ago, people are easy to connect to people in other places. Rather than that, social media helps in building relationships. People who lost contact may reconnect with each other through social media, such as Facebook, Twitter. It’s also a common platform that people always start their new relationships. However, social media networking also brings negative effects to older people. Due to the wide usage of advanced technology, seniors have been forced to use it. The studies have shown that using social media puts the elderly at a higher risk of depression which results from jealous feelings and lower self-esteem when they tend to compare themselves with others. It may also lead to isolation as seniors will spend less time in in-person interactions (Pantic, 2014).

With the rapid development of technologies, the types and characteristics of social networks are changing as well. However, maintaining a stable and supportive social network still an important element of aging well. Thus, the elderly has to choose a correct and appropriate way of social networking for themselves and benefit from it maximally.


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