Friendship and Social Support: The Importance of Role Identity to Aging Adults

By Siebert, Darcy Clay; Mutran, Elizabeth J. et al. | Social Work, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Friendship and Social Support: The Importance of Role Identity to Aging Adults


Siebert, Darcy Clay, Mutran, Elizabeth J., Reitzes, Donald C., Social Work


This article proposes role identity theory as a means of integrating the diverse frameworks and findings that populate the social support literature, and it highlights the importance of the friendship role on life satisfaction for aging adults. A sample of 800 preretirement-age working men and women were surveyed as part of a longitudinal study, Roles and Self: Factors in Development and Retirement. The results include differences in social support by gender, no significant influence of structural support variables, and the significant effect of the role of friendship on respondents' life satisfaction. Hierarchical regression analysis showed that commitment to the role of friend is significant in predicting life satisfaction when controlling for background variables, and friendship identity meanings emerged as the strongest predictor--stronger than income or marital status--when predicting well-being. Integration of theory with current and previous research, implications for practice, and directions for future research are discussed.

Key words: aging; friendship; role identity; social support

Popular and scholarly interest in social support has grown in the past decade, building on earlier research and theory (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1987b, 1991, 1995; Armstrong & Goldsteen, 1990; Bleisner & Bedford, 1995; Bosse, Aldwin, Levenson, Spiro, & Mroczek, 1993; Field & Minkler, 1988; Forster & Stoller, 1992; Johnson & Troll, 1994; Matt & Dean, 1993; O'Connor, 1995; Shye, Mullooly, Freeborn, & Pope, 1995; Turner, 1994; Wykle, Kahana, & Kowal, 1992). Contributing to this trend is the growing attention to social support for older adults, particularly among social workers and health care practitioners who work with increasing numbers of aging clients. It is critical to continue this focus of inquiry as baby boomers age and formal support systems become increasingly overextended. This body of research has generated a number of unifying themes, but it has produced ambiguous findings as well. Our current research sheds light on the issues by explaining how role identity theory is an integrating concept and offers applications for practitioners by revealing how clients' identities and commitment to the friendship role have a strong influence on their life satisfaction.

Despite the explosion of social support research, there is a lack of consensus in defining, operationalizing, and measuring it (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1995; Forster & Stoller, 1992; Jackson & Antonucci, 1992). Measures of social support can include structural features such as size and composition of the support network, frequency of interactions, content and quality of support, and perceptions of its adequacy. Because these measures are not standardized, researchers regularly call for further specification of both measures and concepts (Dean, Matt, & Wood, 1992). Past research also varies by method, with a reliance on cross-sectional data (Adams, 1987; Antonucci, 1989) and few studies with longitudinal designs to address issues of causal ordering (Dean et al., 1992; Matt & Dean, 1993). Diverse research questions with few replications (Israel & Antonucci, 1987), combined with the variety of measures and methods, create a body of work that lacks clarity and is difficult to interpret.

It is most impressive that despite these variations, a number of consistent findings emerge. Scholars agree that social support, however operationalized, is definitely important to health and well-being (Berkman & Syme, 1979; Jackson & Antonucci, 1992), particularly for aging adults (Minkler & Langhauser, 1988). Older adults with few social ties have increased risk of dying earlier (Berkman & Syme), whereas those with social support have a survival advantage (Forster & Stoller, 1992). Older adults who see themselves as socially engaged and supported are in better mental and physical health than those socially isolated (Carstensen, 1991). …

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