Methods: Data are from the nationally representative Americans' Changing Lives study, for the subgroup of respondents aged 24 to 96 (n=1,118) who participated in wave 1 (1986) and wave 2 interviews (1989). A series of 3(age group) by 2(gender) by (time) analyses of variance, with repeated measures on time, are conducted to examine age-related changes in social relationships over time. This study divided age into three groups that represented different life stages: young (20-39), middle-aged (40-59), and older adults (60 and older).
Results: Findings revealed substantial variations in longitudinal patterns of structural social relations across age groups. Overall, young and middle-aged adults had larger social networks than older adults. On the other hand, older adults had more frequent contacts with child(ren). Overall structural social relationships remained stable over time across adulthood. The number of persons with whom respondents could share private feelings, however, increased among older adults, which lent support for socioemotional selectivity theory. Older adults maintained higher levels of positive exchanges with children and spouses than younger and middle-aged adults. In addition, considerable continuity in positive exchanges with children was found among older men and women. Declines in positive exchanges with spouses were observed across all age and gender groups. As expected, older adults reported least frequent experiences of negative exchanges with others, whereas younger adults revealed most frequent experiences. Negative social exchanges with children and friends increased over time among older men but not among other groups. Findings demonstrated substantial variations in longitudinal patterns of change in social exchanges across age and gender groups.
Implications: Findings demonstrate the importance of considering life stages in examining longitudinal patterns of social relationships. Along with substantial effects of social relationships on well-being evidenced elsewhere, these findings indicate the importance of taking a life-course perspective in developing social work interventions for well-being. Gender differences and relationship-specific heterogeneity in longitudinal patterns of social relationships across adulthood also highlight the importance of developing gender- and relationship-specific interventions. For example, the higher and consistently stable levels of negative exchanges with spouses among older women suggest the importance of interventions that could reduce marital conflicts among older women.