The research program "Living arrangements and social networks of older adults" (LSN)

The research program has been developed on request of the Netherlands Program for Research on Aging (Nederlands Stimuleringsprogramma Ouderenonderzoek; NESTOR) steering committee. The aim of this committee, which was installed by the Ministry of Welfare, Health and Cultural Affairs and by the Ministry of Education and Science, was to develop a national plan for research on aging, and to supervise and guide the execution of this plan. The aim of NESTOR was to strengthen the position of aging research in the Netherlands by stressing the improvement of the scientific infrastructure and the stimulation of international collaboration. "Living arrangements and social networks of older adults" was one of the topics selected by the NESTOR steering committee as part of their national plan for research on aging. Previous research carried out at three scientific institutes, namely, the Department of Sociology at the faculty of Social Sciences of VU University in Amsterdam, the Department of Social Research Methodology at the faculty of Social Sciences of VU University in Amsterdam, and the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) in The Hague, provided the expertise required for the topic.

The objectives of the program were the following. First, it aims to provide insight into the determinants of living arrangements of older adults, their kin and non-kin networks. Second, it aims to provide insight into the outcomes of living arrangements of older adults, and their kin and non-kin networks in terms of the availability of the social support essential for daily functioning, for coping with problems associated with life events, and for maintaining well-being. The third objective is to use these insights to separate the assumptions essential to the constructing of models predicting future trends in living arrangements and networks from the assumptions which are not.

The perspective adopted in the research program is one which emphasizes the autonomy of older adults, i.e. their ability to manage on their own. However, contrary to many of the studies into the conditions underlying their ability to manage alone, which tend to emphasize individual characteristics, such as the level of cognitive performance or health status, this program centers on characteristics of the social matrix in which older adults are embedded. In other words, the focus is on the importance of the personal relationships for daily functioning, for coping with life events and for maintaining well-being. More specifically the focus is on living arrangements of older adults and their social networks.

The desire to move beyond an exclusive focus on individual characteristics is not the only reason for focusing on relationships of older persons. Another consideration is that it is particularly in personal relationships that the impact of broader changes in society is reflected. The economic, demographic and cultural changes of recent decades have led to changes in relationships available to people and/or in the conditions providing opportunities for social interaction. It is unclear what the implications are for the individual older adult. How do older persons deal with the changing conditions of personal relationships and how will they deal with these changes in the future? It should be pointed out that relationships of older adults are also subject to changes associated with the aging process itself. For this reason, the (possible) implications of changes in personal relationships which are associated with changes in society must be considered in relation with life course changes in personal relationships.

Research questions
The first question is: what are the determinants of living arrangements of older adults, their kin and non-kin networks? Living arrangements refer to housing, household composition and residential environment. Housing relates to the situation of an older adult living in a private household or in an institution of some kind. Household composition concerns the matter of the older adult living alone, or sharing the household. If the latter is the case, data are gathered about the household members, whether they are a marital partner, a non-marital partner of the same or of the opposite sex, family members (e.g. adult children, elderly parents, siblings etc.) and/or non-family related individuals. The question of residential environment refers to the location such as close to adult children and/or other family members, or whether the person lives in a area with a relatively high or relatively low sub-population of older adults, and whether the person is a relative newcomer or a long term resident. It is likely that housing, household composition and residential environment lay down the restrictions and opportunities which an older person has for establishing and maintaining the relationships which decide their social networks. The proposed research program aims to provide insight into the manner in which this occurs.

The second question is: what are the outcomes of having a specific living arrangement, kin and non-kin network in terms of the support received, and consequently in terms of daily functioning, coping with life events and maintaining well-being? People who are surrounded by other people, who have others available to assist them now and then with practical services, to give positive feedback or to show their affective concern, generally experience a higher level of well-being than those who lack such ties with others. It is put forward that the support provided by social network members helps to protect older persons from experiencing negative outcomes, helps them in their efforts to improve their situation, and helps them respond to adverse events. The support is considered adequate if it meets older persons's needs for well-being and makes it possible for them to arrange their own lives. Several theoretical models can be used to examine the adequacy of support. One is the model of ecological congruence which emphasizes a lock-and-key fit between the demands for particular types of support and the supply of support. Another acknowledge that analyses of the adequacy of support should not only take into account the actual provision of support but also whether or not the support matches the expectation of the individual. Cognitive process approach stressing personal perceptions and evaluations, provide a fruitful framework for such analyses.

The third question is: how can insights into the determinants and outcomes of living arrangements of older adults, their kin and non-kin networks be applied in the construction of more realistic models of future trends in living arrangements and networks? The usefulness of future prognoses depends upon the validity of the assumptions upon which they are founded. Knowledge obtained through the proposed research program can be used in the construction of more realistic models, more realistic in the sense of a broader awareness of the validity of the assumptions upon which they are based. It is proposed that there are two ways in which this aim can be achieved. The first is through the analysis of trends in living arrangements, kin and non-kin networks. Knowledge about trends in living arrangements and networks can provide an indication of the extent to which predictions about future cohorts of older adults can be based upon characteristics of past and present cohorts. The second is through the analysis of inter-individual variability. More particularly, research into the conditions determining the relations between well-being on the one hand and living arrangements or network characteristics on the other is proposed. Such knowledge can provide insight into the question as to whether differences in living arrangements or in networks among older adults can be glossed over or should be taken into account.

Societal relevance and policy implications
The program will contribute in many ways to a better understanding of an aging society and will promote reflections on the consequences of the changing structure and culture of the Dutch society, especially as far as it concerns living arrangements and social networks of older people. These reflections will direct policy development in the next decades. The relevance of this program can be located in three areas: description and insight into life course related determinants, challenging the negative image of older persons, and insight for the prediction of future changes.

The research was supported by a program grant from the Netherlands Program for Research on Ageing (NESTOR), funded by the Ministry of Education, Cultural Affairs and Sciences and the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sports.

Management of the program
A program management team was responsible for laying down and monitoring the policy as far as scientific, personnel, financial and managerial aspects are concerned. The members of the project management team were:
Prof. dr. C.P.M. Knipscheer (chair and program director)
Prof. dr. J. Gierveld (Gierveld at
Prof. dr. T.G. van Tilburg (T.G.van.Tilburg at
Prof. dr. P.A. Dykstra (Dykstra at

Other senior researchers were:
Prof. dr. M.I. Broese van Groenou
Dr. E.D. de Leeuw
Prof. dr. A.C. Liefbroer
Dr. G.C.F. Thomése

Current status of the program (2001)
NESTOR-funding ended in 1996. Specific projects linked to the side-studies on networks (NWO grant 510-77-501; 1993-1998) and widowhood (NWO grant 510-77-603; 1994-1999) were completed in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Furthermore, a program on Diversity in Late Life (NWO grant 410-12-016P) has been conducted (2001-2005). Respondents in the LSN-sample has been logitudinally followed by the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam (LASA). For some LASA-projects, the data collected within the framework of LSN served as baseline.

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Updated: 30-11-2012
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