Gerontological research on social environments is seeking to identify in what ways qualitative as well as quantitative features of an individual's social contacts and social network contribute to the individual's functioning and life quality (Lang and Carstensen, 1998; Pinquart and Sorenson, 2000; Rook, 2000). The theoretical conceptions about the role of social environments across adulthood are manifold and range from macro-theoretical approaches such as the age stratification theory (Riley, 1985) to micro-theoretical conceptions such as social exchange theory (Bengtson, Burgess, and Parrott, 1997) and the socio-emotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, and Charles, 1999).
Theories about the social environments in later life typically have viewed the individual as a recipient or adaptive user of social resources rather than as an active person that engages him- or herself in the construal or even the production of the social environment (Lang 2001; Steverink, Lindenberg, and Ormel, 1998). Recent life-span approaches on the development of social relationships in later life have more explicitly addressed processes that influence and gear the individual's motivations, attitudes, and behaviors toward other people throughout the life course. Most prominently among these are the social convoy model (Antonucci, Langfahl, and Akiyama, 2004), the socio-emotional selectivity theory (Carstensen et al., 1999) and resource-oriented models of social behavior (Lang, 2004). Also, research on parent-child relationships has a long tradition in research on social relations as people age (Frankel and DeWit, 1989; Rosenmayr and Kockeis, 1965; Tartler, 1961). In the following, we first analyze some of the more classical theories of social aging and then elaborate on the implications of more recent theories on aging in the social domain.
Classic approaches to aging in social contexts Interestingly, theoretical conceptions of the social environment in later adulthood often relied on metaphors derived from features of the physical world when referring to social experiences in later adulthood. This includes concepts such as social strata, social convoy, social network, support bank, closeness, distance, or life space as metaphoric descriptions of specific aspects of an individual's social world. Such metaphors serve to keep in mind that all social relationships occur in time as well as in space. Even the now "classic" theories of social aging such as disengagement theory and activity theory have, at least implicitly, acknowledged that aspects of the physical world are relevant for better understanding of social functioning in later life.
According to disengagement theory (Cumming and Henry, 1961), older individuals are seen as limiting their social life spaces in response to societal pressures and in order to prepare for the final phase of their lives. Cumming and Henry (1961) explicitly referred to Lewin's (1936) notion of a psychological life space when they introduced their concept of social lifespace as reflecting the individual's decreasing social opportunities during the aging process. Activity theory emphasized that being socially engaged in a variety of social roles both within and outside the family contributes to better functioning and better life quality (Havighurst, Neugarten, and Tobin, 1968; Lemon, Bengtson, and Peterson, 1972). Keeping a physical or geographical distance from members of younger generations is seen as protecting the older individual from stressful social demands and ensuring maximal freedom to develop age-adequate and adaptive patterns of social activity that contribute to increased well-being. Tartler (1961) introduced the idea of "feeling close at a physical distance'' as one adaptive feature of parent-child relationships related to a better quality of the relationship. Empirical findings could support the notion of "intimacy at a distance'' (Rosenmayr and Kockeis, 1965) as an adaptive regulatory mechanism of intergenerational relationships (Frankel and DeWit, 1989; Wagner, Schütze, and Lang, 1999). For example, in a study with 454 older parents, Frankel and DeWit (1989) found that greater geographical distance was a strong predictor of reduced contact with adult children but was significantly less strongly associated with the experience of important conversations with children. This indicates that the parent-child tie appears to remain emotionally meaningful irrespective of the physical distance. Emotional closeness in relationships may thus be an important compensation mechanism for overcoming seemingly insurmountable geographic distance.
In his social integration theory, Rosow (1974) argued that loss of social roles in later life requires that individuals develop new age-specific and age-adequate social roles. According to the theory, older people, who live in age-segregated environments, are more likely to identify themselves with their age group and their neighborhood. Consequently, they are more likely to engage in community activities when there is no interference with the interests of the younger generation. Empirical findings are not quite consistent, though. For example, older people living in age-segregated neighborhoods were more satisfied with their living circumstances than those who lived in nonsegregated quarters (Messer, 1967; Sherman, 1975). However, it was shown that the positive effect of age segregation is mostly related to differences in socio-economic wealth. Vaskovics (1990) reported that in regions with good infrastructure and a high-quality living standard, age concentration in the neighborhood was unrelated to living satisfaction. Despite the lack of empirical evidence, social integration theory has made a significant contribution in linking facets of the social and the physical environment in the aging process.
Recent theories of aging in social contexts One of the most prominent theories of social aging and life-span development of social relationships in recent time is the social convoy model (Antonucci, 1990; Antonucci and Akiyama, 1995; Antonucci, Langfahl, and Akiyama, 2004). According to this model, an individual's social world is structured hierarchically. The metaphor of a social convoy is viewed as illustrating the life-long dynamic of social ties over the life course. As an individual grows old, his or her relationships and relationship partners change synchronously while he or she moves along the time continuum of his or her life course. At times, relationships drop out of the convoy, while new relationship partners join the social convoy, and some partners, who were lost at times, join the social convoy again. Furthermore, the social convoy is not only moving in time and space, there is also structural change within an individual's convoy. Sometimes individuals feel close to some relationship partners, while other network partners become less important, and vice versa. The composition and functions of social convoys change depending on an individual's age, gender, culture, physical or emotional needs, as well as depending on the specific relationship histories.
There is no doubt that the social convoy has become one of the most powerful metaphors in the field of aging by elegantly capturing many of the complex and dynamic characteristics of the life-long development of social relationships. More importantly, the social convoy model has broadened the perspective on social relationships as being both outcomes of, as well as contexts for, developmental processes (Antonucci et al., 2004; Carstensen and Lang, 1997). The importance of this notion comes into mind when considering specific environments and behavior settings such as nursing homes (Baltes, 1996); quality of living standard or public places in urban cities provide or constrain opportunities for social contact in later life. For example, in a review of research on intergenerational contacts in urban regions, Lang (1998) suggested that there exist distinct age-graded zones for children, families, and older adults in the city that do not have much overlap due to the architecture, laying out, and installation of equipment in most modern urban cities. It is an open question whether social relationships follow the constraints of the physical environment, or whether physical environments reflect the evolution of an ontogeny of social needs and motivations over the centuries.
In her socio-emotional selectivity theory, Laura Carstensen and collaborators (Carstensen et al., 1999; Carstensen and Lang, 1997; Lang and Carstensen, 2002) argued that over the course of life, individuals become increasingly aware that time is a precious resource that is limited. As a consequence, when people perceive time as limited, they are more eager to make the most efficient use of their time by focusing on aspects in their present lives that promise to entail meaningful experiences. According to the theory, such experience is expected to be associated with seeking emotional meaning rather than with seeking new information that will be useful in the more distant future. This central tenet of socio-emotional selectivity theory was empirically shown to operate across different domains of cognitive, emotional, and social aging. For example, in memory tasks, the proportion of recalled emotional materials from all recalled materials was largest among older adults as compared to young adults (Carstensen and Turk-Charles, 1994; Fung and Carstensen, 2003). Adults of different ages, who perceived their time as limited, reported priority of goals related to control of affect and generativity than adults, who perceived no time limitations in their future (Lang and Carstensen, 2002).
Finally, it is important to note that emotional meaning may not only be derived from those partners to whom one feels close but also from the familiarity and security of everyday routines and living circumstances. In this case, even peripheral social contacts with people known for many years or even decades may provide meaningful experience to the older individual (Fingerman, 2004). Going further, it can be asked whether the adaptive processes leading to changes in social motivation are not only depending on perceived time limitations but also on the individual's personal and environmental resources in general. There are great individual differences with respect to what types of social situations provide meaning to an individual. Consequently, some individuals may prefer to focus on indoor activities, whereas others prefer social outdoor activities, again a hint for considering social and physical environmental phenomena in a simultaneous manner.
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