A new University of Chicago study shows that older people remain vital and active members of society as they age, despite a popular notion that they are more likely to be socially isolated.
A research team found that although older individuals have fewer intimate relationships, they may respond to social loss by becoming more likely to volunteer, attend religious services and spend time with their neighbors than those in their 50s.
"A person's social network will inevitably shrink a little as they retire, as they begin to experience bereavements, and so on. That is where the stereotype comes from," said University researcher Benjamin Cornwell.
"But that stereotypical image of the 'isolated elderly' really falls apart when we broaden our conception of what social connectedness is. In our study, we looked at other forms of social involvement as well and found that older adults are more socially engaged in the community than we thought," he said. The study, the first systematic, nationally representative look at both social networks and community involvement among older Americans, revealed these details of social involvement:
The study was based on in-home interviews with 3,005 people, ages 57 to 85, between July 2005 and March 2006, as part of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project supported by the National Institutes of Health. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago conducted the survey.
Edward O. Laumann of the University of Chicago said the research provides a new way of looking at how people relate to society as they age. Additional time spent on social activities isn't necessarily a response to older Americans having more time, he said, or the result of a different perspective among older Americans as compared with baby boomers, many of whom are in their late 50s.
"In this light, we may better understand the greater involvement of the oldest adults in civic activities not as an outcome of generational differences in commitment to community or civic spirit, but as an effort to regain control over their social environments," he said.
Cornwell said, "The new image of the older American is this: Far from being helpless isolates, they are actually extraordinary adaptive creatures. Not only are older adults exceptionally adaptive to social loss, but we speculate that they may also be more proactive than younger adults in establishing ties to the community. In short, they appear to be more socially engaged."
Cornwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center on Demography and Economics of Aging at the University of Chicago, is the lead author of the paper, "The Social Connectedness of Older Adults: A National Profile," published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review. Other authors are Edward O. Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, and L. Philip Schumm, Senior Biostatistician in the Department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago.
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