The Ties That Bind

by Tobi A. Abramson

The current cohort of older adults is comprised of the generation who were at the forefront of developing and cultivating the growth of suburbia. Suburbia provided numerous, multifaceted opportunities for social connection to one’s neighbors and community. However, as this cohort ages and experiences age-related physical challenges, this suburban reality — once an innocuous choice for a good quality of life — may now be fraught with less than optimal consequences. Buffers to these consequences, paired simultaneously with opportunities for vitality in one’s later years may be found in one’s social networks and in the social capital within one’s community.

What are social networks and social capital ? Since both are both key components to successful aging in community, an explanation of the two concepts is in order. The fundamental difference between the two relates to how and to whom we are connected. Our social networks tend to be composed of those individuals with whom we have social ties and from whom we receive social support on a personal level. They are dynamic, and our affiliations within these networks can — and usually do — change over time. On the other hand, our social capital refers to our deep social connections and resources within our larger communities. Social capital is more of a collective dimension focusing on the social relationships between groups of people, whereas social networks reflect an individual dimension. According to Robert Putnam, noted author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, “‘Social capital’ refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.”

Although these two concepts are intertwined, it is possible to have few individual social ties or little personal social support while at the same time having rich social community connections within one’s environment. Communities with high social capital typically respond best to external physical and health threats (e.g., natural disasters), and this is true even for older adults who may be socially isolated.

The Value of Social Networks

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© Infed.org. See their article on social capital.


Throughout one’s life, individuals are embedded in a variety of different interpersonal relationships that include family, friends, and neighbors. The value of these social networks increases as one ages. How extensively one engages with one’s networks has a lot to do with availability, frequency of contact, and proximity to other people.

Those with the largest social networks tend to be married people with higher levels of education and income. Additionally, those in the early years of later life — the “young-old” (65–74 years of age) — are more likely to be part of larger social networks than their “old–old” counterparts (75+ years of age). For these younger individuals, social networks include more non-family members. Not surprisingly, unmarried older men living alone are typically part of the most circumscribed social networks. In addition, one’s functional status influences one’s social connections: physical impairments lower the amounts of family and friend support.

The type of social network one belongs to — friend focused, neighbor focused, family focused, faith based, or restricted in focus and composition — is also a key indicator of social capital. Different types of networks have different outcomes for older adults. Those who are part of a diverse or friend-focused social network are apt to have the widest range of social connections and, consequently, the best outcomes — regardless of physical health status or other demographic characteristics. Interestingly, having family connections available (independent of the quality of these relationships) either lowers or has no impact on one’s morale. Thus, just having family around is not enough to affect older adults’ sense of well-being (which includes such subjective measures as morale, happiness, and life satisfaction).

Our physical and mental health is also impacted by our connection to others. In times of stress, social networks help to minimize the psychological distress. Those integrated into social networks experience less anxiety. This is significant, because anxiety has been linked to older adults’ suffering from and experience of medical illnesses, cognitive decline, sleep disturbances, and even hospitalization. Being lonely — not being connected to or part of a social network — has also been shown to be a reliable predictor of cognitive decline, mortality, depression, self-harm or suicide, as well as problems with alcohol and drug use. In general, those with few social connections tend to have higher rates of major mental disorders.

The Role of Social Capital

Social capital is a critical component of successful aging. With age, the experience of loss increases at the same time one’s social network is shrinking. As a consequence, older adults may become less dependent on their individual social networks and more dependent on the social capital within their communities. Similar to social networks, social capital positively impacts both physical and mental health, increasing life expectancy and decreasing rates of diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Social involvement has been likened to the happiness of increasing one’s income. Joining a group can reduce — by half — the risk of dying within the next year. Rates of depression and substance abuse problems decrease. Having a sense of purpose, feeling needed and useful — these add meaning to one’s life and combat depression. Being able to depend on one’s neighbors, the availability of neighborhood or community services, and social cohesion (interdependency among neighbors) all serve as buffers to life’s stressors and lessen the adverse effect of the losses and declines older adults, especially those who are poor and single, experience.

As its population ages, social capital within a community naturally declines. It therefore becomes critical for adults of all ages to build their social capital throughout their lives, so that they can reap the benefits of their investment during their later years.

Thriving Where We Live

Where to live one’s later years is not an easy decision for older adults. The decision is often presented as a false dichotomy — the choice to remain in one’s current home (for many, the home they raised their families in) or to relocate (to retirement communities, assisted living facilities, or other long-term-care settings). Though numerous technical advances have made aging in place a more viable option than in the past, many of these same advances can actually create a more asocial environment for many older adults. Aging in one’s own home has to be more than the ability to age in place; it must include the ability to continue to function and, yes, thrive in one’s community.

Communities must be able to provide opportunities for older adults to engage in and leverage the community’s social capital with appropriate social, cultural, educational, and religious opportunities. An efficacious community is one that provides these avenues of support. Examples can range from neighborhood-based volunteer programs or projects (like mentoring), to social clubs, to creative engagement. Libraries are becoming centers of activity, and research increasingly indicates that involvement in the arts has a wide range of mutual benefits for the individual and the community. This need to participate in lifelong learning, civic engagement, and cultural enrichment and religious activities will only continue to grow.

We would be remiss not to anchor this discussion in its important historical context. The generation now entering later life is the boomer generation noted for its high levels of civic participation, community involvement, and social capital. As a generation, they have long been accustomed to entertaining and socializing with friends, family, and neighbors at home. We know that volunteering has increased over the last 10 years, due mainly to the retiree workforce. Consequently, this generation is often referred to as the civic generation. They are used to giving back to and staying involved with their community. The challenge, then, is how to maintain this lifelong civic participation with rich social capital and social networks so that, when faced with the demands of aging and less-than-ideal housing alternatives, they can continue to thrive.

As the range of living arrangements has evolved — moving from institutional options to assisted living, to aging in place, to livable communities — the focus, both of the environments and the professionals serving within those environments, is also evolving. Transportation; safety; ADA compliance; affordable, accessible, and appropriate housing; adjusting the physical environment for accessibility; and creating walkable communities — these were the issues that livable communities initiatives usually focused on. What was often lacking in such initiatives was how to move beyond physical needs and be more inclusive of the social and psychological components of living.

It is only now that we are beginning to detect yet another shift — a further evolution beyond livable communities to a new focus on aging in community. The robustness of this new option depends upon our ability to strengthen and leverage the social capital for older adults. This means encouraging participation in a wide range of civic, cultural, social, and recreational activities. The organizations that exist within communities are a starting point for such an effort. Families, and even long-time friends, may be too spread out to fulfill some of the social network needs; consequently, the social capital within the community becomes critical for older adults wanting to maintain their independence and autonomy within their homes and communities.

Keep in mind that this is not one directional. Not only do older adults benefit from the social capital of their communities, they too give back in myriad ways and are a vital component of the community fabric. Many older adults are looking for ways to make meaningful contributions to their communities. For those that do, the benefits are not only physical, but also psychological.

Conclusion

Increasing longevity and the enormous growth of the aging population require a reappraisal of how we engage older adults to help them thrive in their later years. The need to belong is a fundamental human need which directs thoughts, emotions, and interpersonal interactions. Older adults face many barriers that prevent them from remaining part of their community, and there is a strong need to develop strategies to allow them to not only continue to reside in their communities, but to stay engaged and thrive within these milieus. Joining new groups and being involved in organized groups with some consistency greatly impacts both physical and mental health. Community connectedness can make a tremendous difference in the lives of older adults. Greater access to social capital and connections to one’s community not only will enhance the well-being of older adults, but allow them to successfully age in community.
 


Tobi Abramson, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Gerontology and Geriatrics, an Assistant Professor of Mental Health Counseling at New York Institute of Technology, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. For over 25 years, Dr. Abramson has served in leadership roles on numerous national boards and professional associations in the fields of gerontology, geriatric medicine, and mental health. Dr. Abramson can be reached at tabramso@nyit.edu.