The field of sociology has long acknowledged the importance of social relationships.
Some of the most well-known research in sociology on relationships stems from the foundational
work of Durkheim (1951), who found those who were socially integrated were less likely to
commit suicide than those who were socially isolated. Durkheim’s was among the first
sociological studies to argue that social relationships are critical to health and wellbeing. Over
the last several decades, scholars have begun to parse out casual explanations regarding social
relationships and health (House, 1987; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Siebert, Mutran, &
Reitzes, 1999). Social support emerged as a key social resource protective of health, shown to be
associated with adaptive behaviors, and a buffer to negative health outcomes (Cassel, 1976;
Cobb, 1976). More recent sociological research has explored the relevance of social support at
different phases of the life course, with a specific focus on later life (Krause, 2006; Pearlin et al.,
2005) establishing older adults as proactive in managing their social network to fit their social
needs (Carstensen, 1992; Rook, 2009; Streeter et al., 2019). This work acknowledges the
contextual forces shaping social support (Elder et al., 2003; Moen & Hernandez, 2009) and
shows that social support changes over the life course (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1987).
Despite growing attention to social support in sociological research, there are several key
gaps in current scholarship that can be addressed by looking to theories and research grounded in
other disciplines. Although social support is typically treated as a stable resource (Norris &
Kaniasty, 1996; Sarason et al., 1986), much like other resources, growing evidence suggests that
social support changes throughout the life course and is likely to be influenced by important role
losses and life transitions (Rook, 2009). Understanding the dynamic nature of social support is a
necessary step for exploring how it serves as a resource for health. When individuals experience
role losses or social losses in later life, the composition of one’s social network and frequency of
interactions with others are likely to change (Antonucci et al., 2014; Antonucci & Akiyama,
1987; Carstensen, 1992; Pearlin, 2010; Rook, 2009). Sociology alongside scholarship in fields
such as psychology, social work, public health, and economics collectively show that role losses
related to driving cessation, retirement, widowhood in later life, and life are particularly likely to
influence the composition, quality, and frequency of our social interactions and relationships
(Chihuri et al., 2016; C. D. Lee & Bakk, 2001; Powers et al., 2014; Wrzus et al., 2013).
Understanding the ways these kinds of life course changes relate to changes in our social
relationships are critical to understanding how our health is subsequently affected.
This dissertation aims to fill gaps in sociological scholarship about changes in dynamic
social resources that occur during later life. Specifically, I examine changes to structural and
functional support in association with three role losses that have been shown to have important
health consequences in later life – the loss of driving (Study #1), retirement (Study #2), and
widowhood (Study #3) – and whether the associations between these three role losses in later life
and changes in social resources vary by race, class, gender, or marital status.
The findings from this dissertation show that social relationships are both stable and
dynamic resources in later life. Later life is associated with multiple stressful role losses, which
each have the potential to impact our social relationships with children, relatives, and friends in
unique ways. Evidence suggests that certain social locations are especially important in shaping
whether functional and structural support changes in association with a role loss, particularly
race (retirement and widowhood), class (widowhood), and marital status/household composition
(driving cessation and retirement).