Addressing the social needs of older adults: A contributing factor to their health and well-being

The Bottom Line

  • No matter our age, we all have social needs.
  • Feeling connected to other people and to a community contributes to the health and well-being of older adults.
  • Volunteering or participating in social activities appears to be the key to address the needs for proximity, meaningful relationships and reciprocity.
  • Community hubs like public libraries offer the opportunity for older adults to be socially active, and to develop or build meaningful relationships with people nearby.

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)

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Author Details


  1. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Med 2010 Jul;7(7):e1000316.
  2. James BD, Boyle PA, Buchman AS, Bennett DA. Relation of late-life social activity with incident disability among community-dwelling older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2011 Apr;66(4):467-73.
  3. Bruggencate TT, Luijkx KG, Sturm J. Social needs of older people: A systematic literature review. Ageing and Society. 2018;38(9):1745-1770.
  4. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Public libraries: Community hubs responding to the needs of older adults, August 1, 2018.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.