As a college professor for 35 years, I often remarked on how devoted to their friends my students were. At times, it seemed to me almost as if they would die or kill for their friends, and I am certain that some students cheated for their friends. It was almost as if a different moral standard applied to their behavior when it concerned their friends than when other people were involved.
As a group, young adults have more friends and acquaintances than middle-aged and older adults (Antonucci, 1985). Newly married young adults have more friends than adolescents, middle-aged adults, or older adults. They often make friends with other married couples and form two-couple relationships. By the time they are middle-aged, most adults have some "old friends" whom they may or may not see often. Once friendships have been established, they can be maintained even if the friends see each other infrequently. It may be enough simply to know that someone out there cares about you even if you rarely see him or her (Hess, 1971).
To the extent that older adults have fewer friends than other age groups, it is probably due in large measure to the fact that older adults, who typically do not attend school or work outside the home, encounter fewer people every day than in earlier years. In addition, most older adults have voluntarily disengaged to some extent from social life and have developed a more contemplative, "interiorized" perspective on life. Serious health problems can also lead to a decrease in interactions with friends and other people. Whatever the cause may be, the results of a study by Bossé, Aldwin, Levenson, Spiro, and Mroczek (1993) indicate that retirement is not directly responsible for any decline in the number and quality of friendships. In fact, retirees who engage in volunteer or new occupational activities develop new friendships, whereas retirees who choose not to undertake new work roles tend to experience a decrease in friends (Mor-Barak, Scharlach, Birba, & Sokolov, 1992; Van Tilburg, 1992). Those friendships that remain after retirement, though perhaps fewer in number, may, however, become even closer.
According to Carstensen (1993,1995), social contact is motivated by the goals of information seeking, self-concept expression, and emotional regulation. The first of these is the major goal of young adults; the third is the principal goal of older adults, and the three goals are roughly in balance in middle-aged adults. As a result of these age changes in goals, older adults are much more selective than young and middle-aged adults in their social contacts. Thus, most people who are over age 65, and even those over age 85, continue to maintain old friends but are less likely to make new friends when the old ones die or move away. Still, the stereotype of the friendless, lonely, older adult who longs for someone to visit him or her is inaccurate. Most older adults continue to receive psychological support from both friends and relatives.
Not surprisingly, the amount of contact that an older person has and the degree of closeness felt with friends and family members are related to the person's health. The direction of the relationship, however, may not be as one expects. A study by Field, Minkler, Falk, and Leino (1993) found that older adults who were in poor health had fewer contacts with friends and relatives than those who were in good health. Though it might seem as if family members and friends would visit a person more if he or she is in poor health, interpersonal interaction is actually hampered by a lack of health and vitality. However, other evidence indicates that an active network of family, friends, neighbors, and even coworkers can bolster one's resistance to disease, perhaps by activating the immune system. For example, in an experimental study conducted by Cohen et al. (1997), it was found that 62% of a group of people with three or fewer cohesive social relationships came down with colds, compared with only 35% of a group of people with six or more such relationships.
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