Supporting well-being in retirement through meaningful social roles: systematic review of intervention studies

Milbank Q. 2013 Jun;91(2):222-87. doi: 10.1111/milq.12013.


Context: The marked demographic change toward greater proportions of older people in developed nations poses significant challenges for health and social care. Several studies have demonstrated an association between social roles in later life and positive health and well-being outcomes. After retiring from work, people may lose roles that provide purpose and social contacts. The outcomes of interventions to promote social roles in retirement have not been systematically reviewed.

Methods: We examined three research questions: (1) What kinds of intervention have been developed to promote social roles in retirement? (2) How much have they improved perceived roles? (3) Have these roles improved health or well-being? We included those studies that evaluated the provision of social roles; used a control or comparison group; targeted healthy retirement-transition adults who were living in the community; provided an abstract written in English; took place in a highly developed nation; and reported social role, health, or well-being outcomes. We searched eight electronic databases and combined the results with hand searches.

Findings: Through our searches, we identified 9,062 unique publications and eleven evaluative studies of acceptable quality, which reported seven interventions that met our inclusion criteria. These interventions varied in year of inception and scope, but only two were based outside North America. The studies rarely reported the quality or meaning of roles. Only three studies used random allocation, thus limiting inferences of causality from these studies. Interventions providing explicit roles and using supportive group structures were somewhat effective in improving one or more of the following: life satisfaction, social support and activity, physical health and activity, functional health, and cognition.

Conclusions: Social role interventions may improve health and well-being for people in retirement transition. Future research should improve the quality of intervention and assessment and look at which interventions are most effective and acceptable in facilitating social roles for diverse older populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Health Promotion*
  • Humans
  • North America
  • Program Evaluation
  • Retirement*
  • Social Participation*
  • Social Support