Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      September 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 2


I thought no more was needed
Youth to prolong
Than dumb-bell and foil
To keep the body young.
O who could have foretold
That the heart grows old?
A Song, William Butler Yeats

'Going to the Village Well'

by Deborah Galyan

Who could have foretold that the heart grows old? Yeats might not have expected that today, more and more people are anticipating the experience of aging, indeed aggressively planning for it, or that behavioral and social scientists are, in fact, foretelling the ways in which the heart grows old. A new para- digm of aging is emerging in our society, and the image forming is a holistic one joining body, mind, and heart.

Research has demonstrated in useful detail how physical activity—or as Yeats put it, the “dumb-bell and foil”—can improve and prolong life. Cognitive scientists are learning more daily about the aging mind. No one who reads newspapers or watches television could overlook the nation’s obsession with financial planning and retirement security. But beyond physical and mental health and financial security, what else makes for a healthy, satisfying old age?

“I know of an older woman who, as she prepares to go to the YMCA every day, tells her husband, ‘I’m going to the village well,’” says IU Bloomington sociologist Bernice Pescosolido. “Places like the Y have become centers of communal life in the 21st century. They play an important role in the social networks of older people.”

Like their younger counterparts, older people need connections: family, friends, and acquaintances to weave a protective web around them. The significance of such connections is never more apparent than when people face life crises. Pescosolido describes the case of an 84-year-old woman who suddenly couldn’t move her knee.

“She initially decided not to go to the doctor,” Pescosolido recalls. “She was a very tough woman from the Depression era, she had lived through World War II, and she had made up her mind that a bad knee was something she could tough out.”

Her adult children took different positions on their mother’s health crisis. One supported her decision. Another lived quite far away and remained neutral on the issue. The third child called every day and insisted that she would continue to call until her mother went to see a physician.
“She basically harassed her mother into going to a physician,” Pescosolido explains. “One thing social networks can do is force people to do things they might not want to do, like go to a doctor. All kinds of relationships, even those with people who bug you—your boss or your mom, for example—have been shown to lead to positive outcomes in a serious life crisis.”

Bernice Pescosolido is Chancellors' Professor of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington. Photo © 2001 Tyagan Miller.

Pescosolido has spent nearly two decades at IUB, most recently as Chancellors’ Professor, studying the social networks that connect individuals to their communities and to the institutions that affect their lives. As a social scientist, Pescosolido isn’t satisfied with the Beatles’ adage: “We get by with a little help from our friends.” She and her colleagues ask tougher and more complicated questions.

“We want to know exactly how social networks affect people’s lives. What is the real mechanism?” Pescosolido says. “The classical view is that social networks provide support and integration, but also regulation and coercion. Social networks push and pull people in certain directions.”

One way to envision social networks, she explains, is to think of them as a Tinkertoy construction game. At the center is a circular hub, representing a person. Each of the rods radiating out from the hub represent ties that connect that person to others. People with larger social networks have many “rods” arranged in complex configurations; those with smaller networks have fewer. Imagining social networks this way, it’s easy to see how people with larger networks have more support, and it’s easy to see how those with lesser and smaller networks are more likely to be at risk.

“These days, social networks are dynamic,” Pescosolido says. “In a 21st century model, the rods blink on and off. The people those rods represent come and go—they’re not always available. One of the challenges is to understand how and when and under what circumstances social networks change.”

Moving from middle to old age can affect a person’s social networks in profound ways. Older Americans often confront the “empty nest” after years of intimate connection to their children. Retirement disengages people from their workplace ties. The death of a spouse or a close friend can break relationships that have lasted for decades. Pescosolido mentions sociologist Matilda White Riley, recently retired from her position at the National Institute on Aging and one of the original founders of aging studies, who characterized growing old in America as the “roleless role.”

“Some people look at aging as an opportunity to develop a whole second career or a new approach to life,” Pescosolido observes, “but others find themselves at a loss. It’s critical for people to recognize that, as they age, their supports are going to change. Some ties will be enduring, but others will not.”

The good news for aging individuals, Pescosolido points out, is that they can strengthen, reconfigure, and recreate their social networks as they move from stage to stage in life. In fact, weak ties can matter more than strong ties in social networks.

“If someone with a particular illness happens to run into somebody she hasn’t seen since high school, that person might offer her a vital piece of information—news about a new kind of drug or a doctor she’s never heard of—that might really change the course of her illness,” Pescosolido explains. “It sounds strange, but weak ties can matter more than strong ones. The people who surround you—those who are closest to you—have the same ties you have, which means they are likely to have the same information. Weaker ties are embedded in different social networks, and they may bring new information to you.”

The finding that weak ties matter as much, and sometimes more, than strong ties has significant implications for older Americans, whose social networks tend to shrink over time. But how are social networks formed in the first place?

“In premodern society,” Pescosolido explains, “a person’s demographics—social class, race and ethnicity, gender, age—totally predetermined his or her social networks. There were actual written prescriptions about who could have social contact with whom. Social network theorists have been predicting since the mid-’70s that demographics would become less and less powerful, and they were right.”

Race and ethnicity, for example, have less power to determine the character of social networks in American society than they once did, because traditional racial and ethnic enclaves are breaking up. Gender is an exception.

“Gender has always been, and I suspect it will continue to be, an important predictor of social networks,” Pescosolido emphasizes. For example, when women appear in the health-related networks of other people, those people have better outcomes in their health care experiences. “You want a woman in your health network, or even better, a preponderance of women in all your networks,” Pescosolido continues, “because women have traditionally performed and continue to perform important caregiving roles.”

Places such as the YMCA are becoming important sources of connection and support for America's older population. Photo courtesy Monroe County YMCA

In our complex, postmodern society, the phenomenon of shared experience has emerged as an extremely powerful predictor of social networks. Take the example of the local YMCA again: “What sociodemographics unite people there?” Pescolido asks. “There are urban and rural people of all different ages at the Y, all united around the shared experience of fitness.”

Caregivers provide another good example of the power of similar experience: some of the most supportive networks for people with sick loved ones are made up of other caregivers. For example, women who are caregivers for elders with Alzheimer’s disease find the most support not among their closest friends, but among other women caregivers.

Shared experience could be an important factor for aging Americans to consider when making decisions related to retirement. Retirement communities provide potent social networks based on similar experience that replace those weakened by the transitions of aging, according to Pescosolido. “When older people retire and move away from the family home to a community in Arizona, for example, it doesn’t matter whether they’re from Arkansas, Chicago, or New Jersey,” she explains. “The shared experience of living together is incredibly powerful.”

It’s difficult to think about aging in America without mentioning the baby boomers, that celebrated and maligned population bulge whose concerns and self-interests have cast their defining powers over our culture for decades. Will they respond differently than their Depression-era parents, when it comes to the challenges of aging? Will their professed desire to remain youthful and active be reflected in the social networks of their old age? Will virtual and online communities represent significant ties in their social networks?

Although most of the studies that will answer questions about the social networks of aging boomers have not yet been conducted, the boomers’ influence has already been felt. As more and more of them move into the ranks of older Americans, the sheer size and influence of their generation is shifting the focus of scientific inquiry toward questions of aging. For example, Pescosolido notes a surge of interest in older people in the mental health field, her particular area of specialization. In general, she says, “a number of powerful social trends and concerns are coming together to signal the need for research and services targeted specifically for older persons.”

Pescosolido not only studies social networks, she also helps create them. She is the founder and director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research, a regional community of people interested in social networks and mental health issues. Funded initially by a grant from the IUB chancellor’s office and sustained by funds from a variety of sources including the National Institute of Mental Health, the Indiana Consortium brings together faculty from several universities, as well as practitioners, policymakers, and other stakeholders in the field. Each year, consortium organizers host six intensive weekend workshops around the state, bringing members together to work collaboratively on mental health issues.
“One of the reasons the Indiana Consortium is a great success is because, as we developed it, we took very seriously all the social and behavioral science research on community available to us,” Pescosolido says. “What do successful communities look like? We structured the consortium around such questions.”

A substantial amount of the research conducted by the consortium focuses on social networks. As the research progresses and methodologies improve, allowing researchers to understand deeper levels of complexity and detail, Pescosolido and her colleagues continue to affirm that social networks are perhaps the most important factor in determining how a person will cope with life crises, including the challenges of aging.
“Social network research is powerful, because it gets underneath the ‘what’ to the ‘why’ and ‘how,’” Pescosolido concludes. “And that’s why we struggle to measure it.”

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