Age and Gender Differences in Social Network Composition and Social Support Among Older Rural South Africans: Findings From the HAALSI Study

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2020 Jan 1;75(1):148-159. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gby013.


Objectives: Drawing on the "Health and Aging in Africa: A Longitudinal Study of an INDEPTH community in South Africa" (HAALSI) baseline survey, we present data on older adults' social networks and receipt of social support in rural South Africa. We examine how age and gender differences in social network characteristics matched with patterns predicted by theories of choice- and constraint-based network contraction in older adults.

Method: We used regression analysis on data for 5,059 South African adults aged 40 and older.

Results: Older respondents reported fewer important social contacts and less frequent communication than their middle-aged peers, largely due to fewer nonkin connections. Network size difference between older and younger respondents was greater for women than for men. These gender and age differences were explicable by much higher levels of widowhood among older women compared to younger women and older men. There was no evidence for employment-related network contraction or selective retention of emotionally supportive ties.

Discussion: Marriage-related structural constraints impacted on older women's social networks in rural South Africa, but did not explain choice-based network contraction. These findings suggest that many older women in rural Africa, a growing population, may have an unmet need for social support.

Keywords: Constraint theory; Functional selectivity theory; Kin; Marital status; Socioemotional selectivity theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Rural Population* / statistics & numerical data
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Networking*
  • Social Support*
  • South Africa