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The number of friendships in old age is increasing but unevenly across the population

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In Switzerland, between 1979 and 2011, the number of close friends from the age of 65 has increased. A study conducted at the University of Geneva shows that this trend is due to an overall change in lifestyle that includes more social relationships. However, this increase doesn't apply to the entire population. Indeed, individuals living in urban areas, being more active and in better health, are more likely to have close friends from the age of 65, highlighting the continuation of social inequalities as friendship remains an important factor for well-being at this stage of life. Overall, the researchers demonstrate that family ties and friendships coexist rather than substituting for each other.

Sociologist and demographer Marie Baeriswyl and Michel Oris from the Center for Lifespan and Social Epidemiology Studies (LIVES) at the University of Geneva focused on two aspects of friendships in old age between 1979 and 2011: their evolution (increase/decrease in the number of friendships) and social disparities. Published in the "International Journal of Aging and Human Development," their study confirms that social relationships increase after retirement. In this dynamic, the number of close friendships has increased over 32 years. However, the results indicate that while improvements in socio-economic conditions and education play a role in this trend, they don't fully explain the observed increase.

A relatively unexplored aspect, the researchers looked into the profiles of individuals who report maintaining close friendships. The study indeed shows persistent gender inequalities, even though women benefit more from recent historical trends in promoting friendships. The study also highlights regional and socio-economic disparities, with urban regions and more educated individuals having better access to friendships.

Active aging, a model encouraged in Switzerland

In Switzerland, each person's personal network is particularly important as the state only intervenes when family or local communities have reached their limits. This research is thus of great importance in the Swiss context, characterized by a society that is both affluent and unequal. While Switzerland boasts some of the highest life expectancies and incomes in the world, one in five elderly people live below the poverty line, and healthy life expectancy for the least educated individuals has stagnated. Finally, like most Western countries, Switzerland promotes the model of active aging, endorsed by international organizations, which encourages the social participation of older people for well-being.


Full article

Baeriswyl M, Oris M. Friendship in Later Life: Thirty Years of Progress and Inequalities. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development. 2023;96(4):420-446.