Social Relations in the Third Age: Assessing Strengths and Challenges Using the Convoy Model

Article excerpt

In many ways, the Third Age, that period between approximately 65 and 79 years of age, represents a very positive development. People are living longer; they are healthier and more functionally able for much longer periods of their lives. In fact, the Third Age today is characterized by people who have lived quite varied lives, are better educated, more physically able, and generally more interested in an active and interactive lifestyle than those from any previous generation. As in so many other aspects of their lives, this distinctive cohort of people is forging a new path of social relations that represents their unique situational and personal characteristics. Differences in social relations during the Third Age reflects these life course experiences, especially those emanating from gender, race, and education. As a result, whereas many strengths may be evident in the social relations of this age group, challenges reflecting both present and past life experiences are also likely to emerge.

Trends in population aging and morbidity compression suggest that the Third Age represents a period of independence from the pressures of work and a time for self-actualization. To fully enjoy the benefits of the Third Age, it is important to maintain health and well-being. Research suggests that social relations are as important as exercise for maintaining well-being. Thus, a need exists to understand the nature and quality of social relationships during the Third Age of life. In this chapter, we identify the Third Age as a newly emerging period of emancipation and transition, a pioneering period sometimes identified as the crown of life but certainly realistically seen as a time of reward and responsibility. We begin by introducing the Convoy Model of Social Relations as a framework for assessing social relationships. This is followed by a review of the literature that considers how gender, race, and education influence social relations. Finally, data from the Social Relations and Mental Health Study (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1995) are presented to explore age, gender, race, and education variations in social relations. We conclude with a discussion of strengths and challenges associated with the structure and quality of social relations, and further delineate the emerging new path of social relations in the Third Age.

THE CONVOY MODEL OF SOCIAL RELATIONS

The Convoy Model of Social Relations offers a framework within which to consider how gender, race, and educational attainment influence social relationships over the life course. Convoys are generally conceived of as an assembly of close family and friends, who surround the individual and are available as resources in times of need (Ajrouch, Blandon, & Antonucci, 2005; Antonucci & Akiyama, 1987a). Convoys are shaped by personal (e.g., age, gender, race, education) and situational (e.g., role status, including whether one is a parent, spouse, friend, etc.) factors that influence support relations and well-being both contemporaneously and longitudinally. Convoys are dynamic and lifelong, changing in some ways, but remaining stable in others, across time and situations (Antonucci, 1985; 2001; Kahn & Antonucci, 1980). Although social networks refer to the objective characteristics of social relations at any one point in time, the convoy of social relations is specifically designed to encompass all aspects of social relations over time. The convoy framework also includes those personal and situational characteristics that influence the shape and content of the social networks as well as the consequences of social relations on an individuals health and well-being.

By acknowledging the influence of personal and situational characteristics, an assessment of both the strengths and challenges associated with social relations may be achieved. Social relations have been shown to help people cope with crises or stresses, but they have also been shown to create challenges as sources of worry, burden, or strain. …