When identifying older adults who may be at risk of being without necessary supports, policy makers and scholars tend to focus on those living alone, neglecting differences within that group. We examine how their social networks contribute to subjective well-being, why some of them fare better and compare their well-being to older adults coresiding with others.
Data are from the fourth wave of the Survey of Health and Retirement in Europe (N = 53,383). A network typology for older people living alone (N = 10,047) is constructed using a latent class analysis. Using ordinary least squares (OLS) regressions, we examined differences in subjective well-being (life satisfaction, satisfaction with social network, depression) by network type, adding adults coresiding with others (N = 43,336) as comparison group.
We find four social network types among older adults living alone. The likelihood of having “restricted” and “child-based” networks is greater in Eastern and Southern European countries, whereas the likelihood of having “friend-oriented” networks is greater in Western and Northern European countries. Across countries, only those with “restricted” networks tend to have the poorest well-being. Those with “diverse” networks have even better well-being than coresiding older adults.
Our study shows the importance of drawing distinctions within the group of older adults living alone. Most (two thirds) are not vulnerable and at risk, but fare just as well or even better than peers who coreside with others. Country-level factors shape the opportunities to build satisfactory networks, but subjective well-being depends more strongly on individual resources, including social networks, than country-level factors.