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Module 4 - Social networks and technologies

Connected Caregivers for connecting older adults

BeingAgeing is often associated with a reduced ability to engage in the community both for the older person and, often, for their carers. The result of this reduced ability can be social isolation and exclusion which is a cause for concern. There is, however, growing evidence of the individual and collective benefits of participation in the local community and society in general, especially in the area of health and well‐being and the associated impact on mortality and morbidity. 

If we go through the cells of Max-Neef's matrix, we see that there are several satisfiers which reflect on the social connections at every level of need (being, having, doing and interacting) - as a basic condition of well-being and satisfaction with quality of their life.

... sense of belonging

In the later life stage people might need "a sense of belonging" more than ever. Without proximity to family members and friends older people may struggle with loneliness, even if they have financial security.

... to feel that somebody needs me

Any one of us might fall into depression when we feel we have no purpose. For older adults this may also be complicated by feeling that they are a burden to others.


... to have space for expression

Remaining active and creative requires continuous interaction with other people, having audience to share ideas with, to get feedback and inspiration from.

... to have responsibility

It is very important for older adults to have tasks and responsibilities. We mustn't take over all their tasks just because we want to help. On the contrary: we help if we show our trust that they can do it, and appreciate their efforts.

... to have fun, to play

Older adults enjoy playing games. These can be traditional ones (board games, cards etc.), and increasingly applications and online games to play either individually or by joining a virtual group.

... to interact

There a lot of opportunities for physical as well as virtual interaction with ex-schoolmates, ex-colleagues, people at church, people in the same street or on the bus, people at the same training session, and so on. If we show older adults how to look for and contact ex-schoolmates on Facebook, we have already helped a lot.

... to study, to investigate

Often when older adults say they cannot learn new things, they do not really mean it. They are still curious, but may be a bit intimidated by new technology. If someone who is patient explains the basic functions of the technology they need, in simple language older adults will generally try to use new applications and devices, and usually enjoy doing so.

Research conducted in the last couple of years has undoubtedly shown that latest technological devices and tools can encourage creative activities and support self-expression and help prevent social isolation of older adults. It is the responsibility of formal and informal caregiver to introduce these possibilities to older adults and teach them how to use them.

The good life is built with good relationships

The title of this section is a quote from the TED talk of What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness of Robert Waldinger, the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development (robertwaldinger.com).

Waldinger discusses the longest running longitudinal study of adult life: for almost 80 years, the professors of Harvard Study of Adult Development have tracked the lives of 724 men, "year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health, and of course asking all along the way without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out". Robert Waldinger was the 4th project manager of the study.

The study's findings are hugely important for all of us, especially those caring for older adults who wish to help them achieve and maintain happiness in later life by building and enlarging their social network in their real and virtual environment as far as possible.

"We've learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxicPeople who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they're lonely. "

The final conclusions of the scientific research of Harvard study are really shocking:

  • Loneliness kills, loneliness turns out to be toxic,
  • People who are more socially connected ... are happier, physically healthier and live longer,
  • Good relationships protect not only physical well-being, but the cognitive functions as well. People who are more isolated experience declines in brain functioning sooner.

This research shows that most of the needs outlined in Max-Neef Model can be realized only by having rich social connections with others. 

  • being respected, loved, having fun, 
  • duties, responsibilities, work, collaboration, opinions,
  • fun, games, designing, building,
  • belonging, esteem, self-knowledge,

Analysing social network

Classroom 1

Relationships between pupils in a classroom (Grandjean, M., 2015)

Source:  Social network analysis and visualization: Moreno’s Sociograms revisited.

It is crucial for carers to know the social environment of older adults they care for. They have to be aware of the existence of the older person's family, relations, friends and neighbours who can contribute to meeting their most important spiritual and social needs. Carers should be able to assist older adults in this respect as well if necessary.

Visualisation of social connections - sociogram

There is a very simple method to make the social network of people or a group visable  - it is called a sociogram. It was first used by the Romanian-American psychiatrist, Jacob Levy Moreno  in 1934 (1), who developed a new method - called sociometry - for investigating the social structures, the evolution of groups and sub-groups of people, and to reveal how they impact the well-being of the individuals involved.

He wanted to visualise the hidden structure of the classroom community and illustrated the relationships  among the pupils in a chart. He created the chart by asking the pupils questions like who wants to be sitting next to whom and for how long?

Since then sociograms are widely used to map interpersonal relationships and interpersonal lines of communication. They can be used for mapping and evaluating the relationships among individuals, families, households, villages, communities or any group of people. The chart is built up from nodes and ties - the people are represented by the nodes, while the relationships between them are called ties. 

The type of relationship determines  the degree of the tie. Within the network we can observe "weak ties" and "strong ties". You could think of strong ties as your friends and weak ties as your acquaintances. If the connection means phone calls, the duration of the calls may define the strength of the tie, or it can be the amount of time spent together and the emotional intensity of the relationship.


The Strength of Weak Ties

Strong and Weak ties are both important.They perform different functions in relationships. Socially weak ties can bring many benefits outside of your normal relationships.

American sociologist Mark Sanford Granovetter (3) published a very interesting study titled "The Strengh of Weak Ties". He suggests that weak ties help spread novel information by bridging the gap between groups of strong tie contacts. Weak ties facilitate contact with populations and audiences that are not accessible via strong ties.  His paper became one of the most cited in the Social Sciences. (4) 

There are unlimited options to make the sociograms more informative for example the diagram - with the help of the icons and connecting lines - shows the people with many strong and weak ties and also the participants' hobbies and personal qualities. For example, it can be seen that the person number 18 - despite having only one strong and one weak link - can make new connections through a network member number 12 who is only three steps away.


If an older adult looses a strong tie, they stand a better chance of replacing that connection if they have several weak ties in their network. Weak ties create opportunities. It is what all of us might experience: opportunities come from people with whom we are only remotely connected. Think about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, the added value lies not in the direct connections but in the “friends of our friends”. The success of social media platforms is based on making it easier and quicker to connect with and make use of weak ties. 

(1)  Jacob Levy Moreno (born Iacob Levy; May 18, 1889 – May 14, 1974) was a Romanian-American psychiatristpsychosociologist, and educator, the founder of psychodrama, and the foremost pioneer of group psychotherapy (Wikipedia)

(2) Grandjean, M. (2015) Social network analysis and visualization: Moreno’s Sociograms revisited, http://www.martingrandjean.ch/social-network-analysis-visualization-morenos-sociograms-revisited/

(3) Mark Sanford Granovetter (born October 20, 1943) is an American sociologist and professor at Stanford University. (Wikipedia)

(4) Granovetter, M. (1973) The Strength Of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78, 1360-80.

(5) Albert-László Barabási (born March 30, 1967) is a Romanian-born Hungarian-American physicist, best known for his work in the research of network theory. (Wikipedia)

(6) Barabási Albert László (2016): A hálózatok tudománya. Libri Könyvkiadó, Budapest