Older people often lack the social and emotional support they need to stay healthy and that's especially true of non-whites living in rural areas, a new study finds.
Researchers from Penn State found that, nationwide, one in ten white adults over age 65 reported not receiving the support they need – compared to one in five Blacks and Hispanics. The situation is thought to be worse in rural areas, where there are fewer public facilities.
“As people age, their social networks tend to shrink,” said Danielle Rhubart, the Penn State professor who was lead author of the study.
“Retirement often starts the process, and networks continue to contract as people age. Additionally, reduced personal abilities can limit people’s opportunities to access and engage the social networks that remain,” she said.
This reduced social contact contributes to reduced levels of support, and lower levels of social and emotional support can be related to a range of health problems including cognitive decline, depression, dissatisfaction with life and even early death.
Minorities at greater risk
Black and Hispanic older adults are at even more risk, according to Jennifer Kowalkowski, postdoctoral scholar in biobehavioral health and study coauthor.
"Historically, racist practices in society have contributed to poorer health among Hispanic and Black older adults," Kowalkowski said. "Connecting with others is often important for these groups — they have larger and more diverse social networks than white older adults — and it is through these connections that Hispanic and Black older adults are able to get the kind of support they need to maintain their health and well-being."
It doesn't have to be that way, though. Rhubart said that opportunities for more social interaction benefit all older people in a community, not just those who actually show up at senior centers, church services, coffee shops, libraries and other social activities.
One model used by researchers suggests that "a combination of intimate and casual encounters in these spaces leads to interactions that increase everyone’s senses of support."
A scenario that illustrates the theory, according to Rhubart, could be to consider social and emotional support for a hypothetical older woman with poor vision who does not often leave the house.
If her brother runs into her pastor at a coffee shop and tells the pastor about his sister’s condition, the pastor may visit the woman. So, despite the woman not visiting the church or the coffee shop, her support is increased because both spaces exist in her community.
And even if the pastor doesn’t visit the woman, hearing about her brother’s interaction and conversation with the pastor may help her feel connected to a larger network of support, Rhubart said.
The model cited by Rhubart could be good news for agencies struggling to meet the needs of an aging and often isolated population.
“While direct support for individuals will always be critically important, this research is exciting because it suggests that we may be able to make inroads into supporting mental and emotional health by working at the community level," Rhubart said.
"Research has shown that sidewalks and parks are important for supporting physical health. We need to apply this same community-level approach to mental and social health. Our research here suggests that social infrastructure might be a good place to start."