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April 16, 2008

Older Americans Are More Socially Engaged
than Commonly Thought

Study published in the American Sociological Review challenges “isolated elderly” stereotype

Chicago — Despite a popular notion that older people are more likely to be socially isolated, a new sociological study from the University of Chicago shows that retired people, rather than being marginalized, remain vital and active members of society as they age.

Although older individuals have fewer intimate relationships, the study indicates that they may respond to social loss by becoming more likely to volunteer; attend religious services; and spend time with their neighbors than people in their 50s.

"People's social networks will inevitably shrink a little as they retire, as they begin to experience bereavements, and so on. This is the source of the 'isolated elderly' stereotype," said Benjamin Cornwell, postdoctoral fellow in the Center on Demography and Economics of Aging at the University of Chicago, and the lead author of the paper, "The Social Connectedness of Older Adults: A National Profile," published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

"But that stereotypical image really falls apart when we broaden our conception of social connectedness," Cornwell said. "By examining other forms of social involvement, the research indicated that older adults are more socially engaged in the community than we thought."

The study is the first systematic, nationally representative look at social network connectedness among older Americans. Among the findings:

  • About three-quarters of older adults between the ages of 57 and 85 socialize with their neighbors; attend religious services; volunteer; or attend meetings of other organized groups at least weekly. Those in their 80s were twice as likely as those in their late 50s to engage in one of these activities so frequently.
  • While about 50 percent of those in their 70s and 80s socialize with their neighbors on at least a weekly basis, about 40 percent of people in their late 50s and 60s do. In fact, people in their early 80s are more than twice as likely to socialize with their neighbors as those in their late 50s.
  • About 50 percent of those in their 70s and 80s attend religious services at least weekly, compared to 40 percent of people in their late 50s and 60s. People in their 70s are twice as likely to attend religious services on at least a weekly basis as people in their late 50s, and those in their 80s are nearly 50 percent more likely to do so.
  • About 22 percent of people in their 70s and 80s volunteer on a weekly basis, compared to about 17 percent of those in their older 50s. People in their 70s and 80s are about 36 percent more likely to volunteer on at least a weekly basis than people in their late 50s.

Cornwell co-authored the study with Edward O. Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service professor of sociology at the University of Chicago; and L. Philip Schumm, staff statistician, Department of Health Studies, University of Chicago.

Laumann said that the research provides a new way of looking at how people relate to society as they age. He asserts that increased social involvement of older Americans compared to baby boomers (many of whom are now in their late 50s) can't necessarily be attributed to increases in leisure time or a different generational perspective.

"In this light, we may better understand the greater involvement of the oldest adults in civic activities not as an outcome of generational differences in community commitment or civic spirit, but as an effort to regain control over their social environments," said Laumann.

The study, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, was based on in-home interviews with 3,005 people ages 57 to 85 between July 2005 and March 2006. The research was part of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project supported by the National Institutes of Health.

"The new image of the older American is this: Far from being helpless isolates, they are actually extraordinary adaptive creatures," Cornwell said. "Not only are older adults extraordinarily adaptive to social loss, but they may also be more proactive than younger adults in establishing ties to the community. In short, they appear to be more socially engaged."


For a copy of the study or for more information, contact Jackie Cooper at or (202) 247-9871.

The American Sociological Review is the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.