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Social Support - Differentials In Social Support And Social Integration

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One stereotype of old age says that it is a time of loneliness and isolation, a time characterized by the loss of social ties when adult children leave home, seniors retire, and peers and spouses die. Although this portrait is certainly true for some older people, the majority of seniors appear to keep active social ties. Rowe and Kahn invoke the concept of convoys of social support to describe the way in which individuals maintain supportive networks into old age. Whereas seniors do experience losses to their networks over time, they replace many losses with new ties. In fact, network size appears to be fairly stable across the life course, with, on average, eight to eleven members in personal networks. Compared to the networks of younger adults, seniors’ networks tend to include more kin and, perhaps, be less proximate. Thus, the number of close social ties declines only modestly with age, while the types of ties change.

This picture of the typical senior, however, can mask important variations in social support and integration. The structure and function of social ties appears to vary by gender, marital status, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and residence in rural, urban, or suburban areas.

Gender differences in social support and social integration have been one of the most consistent research findings. In general, women have markedly higher levels of social interaction than do men. Women provide and receive more social support, exchange a greater variety of types of support, and have larger numbers of social ties. Men, however, may benefit more than women from the support they receive. In other words, the health benefits of social ties appear to be greater for older men than for older women. Support provided through the marital relationship seems to be an important part of this gender difference. Older women are more likely to be widowed, and thus without the emotional support of a spouse. Further, however, men receive more health benefits from marital support than do women.

Evidence regarding racial and ethnic group differentials in social ties is mixed. Seniors from all groups tend to maintain active networks, both giving and receiving support. Most seniors also benefit from frequent involvement with church and family. The composition of social networks, however, differs across groups. Compared to white seniors, African Americans and Mexican Americans include more extended family members in their personal networks. Minority seniors are also more likely to rely exclusively on family members and close friends for instrumental assistance, whereas older whites use more formal support providers.

Knowledge about social network differences across socioeconomic status (SES) groups is limited. In general, evidence suggests that higher-SES individuals have more support available, provide more support, and include more friends in their networks. Providing emotional support to others has been associated with higher self-esteem—with the association being strongest for upper-SES seniors. Group differences in involvement with family are minimal. It is not clear to what extent SES differences in social ties are confounded with racial and ethnic group differences.

Place of residence also has some influence on social ties. Elderly urban-dwellers are more likely to use formal care providers and have more diverse personal networks than rural seniors. In contrast, older rural residents report a higher proportion of family members in their networks. Older residents of poor and deteriorating urban neighborhoods have smaller networks and less emotional support. Differences in availability of contacts and support may explain some of these differences.

LAURA RUDKIN IVONNE-MARIE INDRIKOVS

See also CAREGIVING, INFORMAL; FAMILY; FRIENDSHIP; HEALTH, SOCIAL FACTORS; RELIGION; SIBLING RELATIONSHIPS.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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