Social network type and subjective well-being in a national sample of older Americans

Howard Litwin, Sharon Shiovitz-Ezra
Gerontologist 2011, 51 (3): 379-88

PURPOSE: The study considers the social networks of older Americans, a population for whom there have been few studies of social network type. It also examines associations between network types and well-being indicators: loneliness, anxiety, and happiness.

DESIGN AND METHODS: A subsample of persons aged 65 years and older from the first wave of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project was employed (N = 1,462). We applied K-means cluster analysis to derive social network types using 7 criterion variables. In the multivariate stage, the well-being outcomes were regressed on the network type construct and on background and health characteristics by means of logistic regression.

RESULTS: Five social network types were derived: "diverse," "friend," "congregant," "family," and "restricted." Social network type was found to be associated with each of the well-being indicators after adjusting for demographic and health confounders. Respondents embedded in network types characterized by greater social capital tended to exhibit better well-being in terms of less loneliness, less anxiety, and greater happiness.

IMPLICATIONS: Knowledge about differing network types should make gerontological practitioners more aware of the varying interpersonal milieus in which older people function. Adopting network type assessment as an integral part of intake procedures and tracing network shifts over time can serve as a basis for risk assessment as well as a means for determining the efficacy of interventions.

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