Social relations are key determinants of an individual’s health, well-being and feelings of belonging, as they provide social and material resources and the value of attachment in its own right (Bowlby 1982). Hence, being excluded from social relations disrupts people from a fundamental aspect of human life and reduces possibilities of being healthy and happy in old-age. While empirical evidence for the beneficial effects of social networks is substantial, it is important to acknowledge also potential negative effects of social relations. Conflictual and/or abusive relations can be extremely stressful and may lead to negative health and well-being outcomes. Abusive relationships may be particularly difficult for older adults to terminate because of the increased risk of declining health and the need for support (Rook 2003).
It is important to define what we mean by exclusion from social relations, as the way it is defined determines our core understanding of it. Based on discussions in the ROSEnet Cost Action, we define exclusion from social relations as a situation in which people are disconnected from adequate levels and quality of intimate relationships, social networks, social support, and/or social opportunities to participate in the wider society. Although exclusion from social relations is often equated with loneliness, we consider it to be a different concept. Loneliness is defined as a negative feeling, which arises when the number and quality of social relations one has is smaller than one would like to have (Perlman and Peplau 1981). Loneliness is thus seen as just one of the possible outcomes of exclusion from social relations, but one that is highlighted by authors in this section of the book.
The conceptual model of exclusion from social relations articulates separately different elements of this form of exclusion. It describes risks for exclusion from social relationships as personal attributes such as age, gender, education, income, and socio-economic and marital status (De Jong Gierveld et al. 2009) and sexual orientation (Cronin and King 2010); biological and neurological characteristics (Aartsen et al. 2004; Lechner et al. 2007); and life experiences concerning, retirement, exclusion from material resources, and migration (Walters and Bartlett 2009). It makes a distinction between objective ratings and subjective assessments of social relations and how mismatches between these two elements lead to poor outcomes in terms of individual well-being (e.g. quality of life, life satisfaction, loneliness and belonging); health and functioning; social opportunities and social cohesion. The conceptual model takes into account the contexts that impact on the process of exclusion. This includes the role of psychological resources (Schoenmakers et al. 2015) and socio-emotional processes (Lang 2000). It also includes the immediate environment such as the walkability and level of safety of a neighbourhood [also see Drilling et al. this volume] and the quality and design of the house (Burholt et al. 2016) and policy contextual influences such as norms and attitudes towards older people, mandatory retirement age and pension systems (Palmore 2015; Gibney et al. 2017; and Ogg and Myck, this volume). Finally, the model illustrates a dynamic relationship between its constituent elements and how each element may change over time.
A helpful, but underutilised (Van Regenmortel et al. 2016) approach to further understand levels of exclusion from social relations is the life-course perspective (Elder 1994). This perspective implies that the degree of exclusion from social relations experienced in older-age is being shaped by conditions and decisions earlier in life. For example, the decision to study, to marry, to raise a family, and to divorce may not only have an immediate effect on the number of social relations people have, but it may have repercussions for the social network people have in later life. Moreover, developments in a person’s life are interconnected with developments in other people’s lives; for example, caring for a partner limits possibilities to participate in society. Life-course transitions are of particular importance, where for instance losing a spouse or retirement can disrupt a person’s social relations. There may also be an accumulation of advantages and disadvantages that may result in inequities in later life for certain groups of older people e.g. ethnic minorities, migrants, LGBTQ+ groups, or women.
The life-course perspective further acknowledges that factors leading to exclusion from social relations may vary by time and place, norms, values, and policies, and hence, across societies. As individual lives change over time, so too do ‘national cultures’ and places, with these dynamics sometimes also contributing to exclusion from social relations. Structural changes such as improved communication or the mass media can influence changes in norms, beliefs, values, customs and traditions (Winter 2017) which in turn can influence older people’s expectations concerning the ideal level of social relations. Industrial regional developments that influence local employment opportunities may directly affect population mobility or population turnover resulting in fewer proximal kin, or reduced neighbourliness (Skinner et al. 2014; Burholt and Sardani 2017) thus contributing to exclusion from social relations.