Sociometry with Senior Adults: the diminished social atom
by Ann E. Hale, M.A., TEP
What are ways you can adapt personal sociometric exercises when working
with senior adults many of whom have a diminished personal social atom.
Cultures vary in the ways they care for their elders. Associated with
aging in many cultures are changes and losses related to physical
health and capacities, changes in family roles, social and work life,
and the roles associated with care of the home and surroundings,
including neighbors. “Role loss may be seen as a reduction of
spontaneity and creativity in the older person.”1 Two sociometric
exercises I would adapt for work with senior adults are the personal
social atom and the role diagram.
A certain sensitivity is required when speaking with persons whose role
repertoire has diminished. It is helpful to have current knowledge of
individual’s circumstances and the losses they may have
methods may be used for both intake interviews, where you complete the
actual diagrams, and for later individual and group explorations.
The Social Atom
(1) Build a social atom from looking at available
photos. You can begin with an album, photos in a person’s
room, photos carried in a wallet, etc. You can even suggest
that they reminisce and speak of photos not taken but images which they
hold in their memory. “At the moment I was working with an
individual (in a group) I would have them consider the fluidity of their
social atom over the years...then setting out the social atom from
somewhere in time...following the protagonist’s warmup as it went
forwards and backwards in time...” 2
(2) Use alternatives to pencil and paper, or moving
into physical action in instances where the person is unable to either
write or move about easily. A selection of magnets can be made
available for them to choose as symbols of particular persons, or “Play
of Life” kits such as those made available by
psychiatrist/psychodramatist Carlos Raimundo. If a group is
available there is an element of role engagement which occurs when
people with whom they are now living take on a role, even for a limited
time, in order that the person is stimulated to remember, complete
issues and connect in the here and now from a role active in the past.
(3) Build a social atom from watching a film focused
on a particular role repertoire. Choose a film which stimulates their
memory of family life, or work life, or social gatherings. If
there is a scene of a party, then they can build a social atom of
people in their life that came to a party they gave, attended, or who
they would want to come a party if one was given today.
(4) Holiday social atom - Have the person choose a
holiday and build a social atom of the persons they have usually spent
time with on this holiday.
There are many ways to move into a social atom. These examples are offered to stimulate your creativity.
The Role Diagram 3
A role list is made which can be a role cluster (Parent, teacher, etc) or be named in very specific
terms. A person charts the feelings one has about themself in the
role and about another person in the case of an interactive role
diagram.. A notational system is used to identify roles active
now, once active roles, and wished for roles.
In terms of role re-engagement, this notational system can be quite
useful for helping to form a list of role needs. Here are some
suggestions for adapting the role diagram for use with senior adults.
(1) Build a role diagram around one role,
identifying specific actions and interactions which make up that one
role. Such as: (a) a favorite role; (b) role associated with an
important skill; ( c) role where the person makes an important
(2) Make a collage of pictures torn from magazines
of action components of longed for roles. Paste these on a sheet of
paper or into a small book. Make written notations for ways the
person can begin to move toward these roles in their current
environment. Example: The person cut out a picture of a person ice
skating. “I used to love to ice skate and was quite good at it. Won
prizes.” This can be followed up by choosing a movie that
includes ice skating for her friends or other group members to watch.
Give the person the remote to stop the movie, and talk about the
particular technique involved in skating. Help the person see the value
in their particular expertise.
(3) The body role diagram: Kabat-Zinn
(1990) offers a device he terms the “body scan” 4 which can be used to
conduct a guided tour through the body, relaxing and also communicating
with the body. An adaptation which can be used with the role diagram is
to add “when you come to this part of the body, call to mind all the
things this part of your body used to do, and thank it for those years
of service.” This mindfulness activity helps to train the person
to be in the present even when identifying past events. The next
step can be a body scan where the person allows into their
consciousness what the part of the body wants to do, and to imagine it
happening in the here and now.
In the conclusion of Kerry Altman’s paper on institutionalized elderly
he states: "The use of action group methods can provide an approach
which fosters group cohesion, spontaneity, role re-engagement and role
substitution. Certainly this approach, as in all approaches to
chronicity, requires a great degree of stamina, but more
importantly, it requires a willingness on the part of the therapist to
seek a varied role repertoire to invoke the appropriate reciprocal
role. What has traditionally been called “resistance” in these patients
may well be our inability as therapists to find the effective role
1.Altman, Kerry Paul, "Psychodrama with the institutionalized elderly: a method for role re-engagement" Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama and Sociometry, Vol. 36, no. 3 (Fall, 1983) p. 87-96.
2. Howie, Peter. E-mail response to the Practitioner question" August 30, 2006, 12:06am.
3.Hale, Ann Elisabeth, "The Role Diagram Expanded" a chapter in Conducting Clinical Sociometric Explorations, Roanoke, VA, Royal Publishing, 1985.
4. Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Full Catastrophe Living, NY, Dell, 1990.
5. Altman, Kerry P, p. 95.
Note: If you click on Bibliography on the home page, and search
under "elderly" 27 articles are listed, as further resources. AH