When your world gets smaller: How older people try to meet their social needs, including the role of social technology

T. ten Bruggencate*, K.G. Luijkx, J. Sturm

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Social needs are important basic human needs. When social needs are not fulfilled, it can lead to mental and physical health problems. In an ageing society, meeting the social needs of older adults is important to sustain their wellbeing and quality of life. Social technology is used by younger people attempting to fulfil social needs. The aim of this study is to understand the social needs of older people and the role of social technology in fulfilling these needs. Using this information we will uncover opportunities for (technological) interventions. We conducted a qualitative explorative field study by interviewing 19 community-dwelling older adults. The participants were selected by professional care-givers with the help of a list of criteria for people at risk of social isolation or loneliness. Semi-structured interviews were held, using a topic list covering the following topics: social networks, social support, connectedness, neighbourhood, activities and hobbies, as well as use of and experiences with social technology. After thematic analysis, inductive codes were attached to quotations relevant to the research question. The results were described in four sections: (a) social needs and relationships; (b) the influence of life history and personality; (c) possibilities and barriers to meet social needs; and (d) use of and attitude towards social technology. The results indicate that the group of participants is heterogeneous and that their social needs and the way they try to meet these are diverse. The Social Production Functions Theory of Successful Aging (SPF-SA) was found to be a useful basis for interpreting and presenting the data. Social needs such as connectedness, autonomy, affection, behavioural confirmation and status are important for the wellbeing of older people. Although the need for affection is most easy to fulfil for older people, it looks like satisfaction of the need for behavioural confirmation and status are in some cases preferred, especially by the male participants. Resources such as relationships, activities, personal circumstances and social technology can help meet social needs. Where there is a lack of (physical) resources such as health problems, reduced mobility, death of network members, fear of rejection and gossip, and poor financial circumstances, meeting social needs can be more difficult for some older people. Social technology now plays a modest role in the lives of older people and in fulfilling their social needs. Because of its potential and its role in the lives of younger people, social technology can be seen as a promising resource in the satisfaction of social needs. However, since it is yet unknown how and to what extent the use of social network technologies, such as Facebook, can be beneficial for older people, more research in this area is needed. Based on our findings, we conclude that the world of older individuals is getting smaller. The loss of resources, e.g. the loss of one's health and mobility, may make it more difficult for an older person to connect with the world outside, which may result in a smaller social network. We therefore suggest that interventions to support older adults to meet their social needs may focus on two aspects: supporting and improving the world close by and bringing the world outside a little bit closer.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1826-1852
JournalAgeing & Society
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Social Production Functions Theory of Successful Aging (SPF-SA)
  • interventions
  • older adults
  • social needs
  • social technology


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