Humans are, by nature, social animals. No matter our age, we all have social needs – whether it’s the need to be loved, to be accepted by our peers, or to belong to a community. Satisfying these social needs can improve your quality of life and help protect against illnesses and depression.
As we age, our social priorities and needs can change. They can also be more difficult to fulfill due to health problems, mobility challenges and a shrinking social network, which may contribute to the feelings of loneliness and social isolation experienced by many older adults.(1; 2)
What the research tells us about the social needs of older adults and how to address them
A recent systematic review of 14 studies examined the social needs of people over 65 and identified ways to contribute to their well-being.(3) This systematic review identified four main themes: 1) a diversity of needs; 2) the need for proximity; 3) the need for meaningful relationships; and 4) the need for reciprocity.
A diversity of needs
Research evidence reveals that not all older adults have the same social needs; there are individual and cultural differences. Some cultures may be more supportive of (and actively engage) their elders than others. Also, not everyone feels the need to have an extensive social network in order to be happy. It must be remembered that social needs are rooted in the personalities, desires, expectations and cultures of older adults.
The need for proximity
As we age, our social network often becomes less extensive and the frequency of contact with friends and loved ones tends to decrease. While relationships with close friends or family members are important, relationships with neighbours and other members of the community also play significant roles. Having a support network that is close by will contribute to older adults’ feelings of safety, comfort and connectivity.
The need for meaningful relationships
Meaningful social relationships help to provide affection, as well as a sense of purpose and respect. Research evidence shows the importance of social networks, which includes family, friends, neighbours and community members. Even casual conversations with strangers can fulfill some social needs of older adults and contribute to their well-being. A tight social network can be greatly beneficial to older adults by supporting their well-being and helping them maintain their independence. That being said, older adults are generally afraid of becoming a burden to their friends and loved ones (or being perceived as such).
The need for reciprocity
Reciprocity relates to both proximity and meaningful relationships: a relationship seems stronger when there is some reciprocity. Reciprocity means not only receiving from others, but also offering support and friendship, helping others and contributing to society (whether by volunteering or helping neighbours). Feeling useful is an important contributor to older adults’ sense of independence and purpose.
In light of these findings, it is possible to draw some recommendations to address the social needs of older adults:
- Consider individual and cultural differences while developing and implementing interventions to address the social needs of older adults. Everyone does not have the same social needs.
- Encourage older adults to engage in volunteer activities that put their talents and expertise to work, which will nurture their sense of purpose and of belonging to a community.
- Focus should also be put on interventions that encourage older adults’ social connections and engagement. Community hubs providing a central access point for a range of cultural and recreational programs and services (such as public libraries) can be particularly promising to address their need for meaningful relationships with people nearby.(4)