New research shows elderly at risk of social isolation: Implications for mentoring

Posted by Jared Wadley on

One in five older adults is socially isolated from family or friends, increasing their risks for poor mental and physical health, as well as higher rates of mortality, a new study shows.

Researchers investigated several factors affecting social isolation from family and friends within a national sample of more than 1,300 older African-Americans, black Caribbeans, and whites. Study participants were 55 and older.

Overall, most elderly were connected to both family and friends (77 percent), while 11 percent were isolated from friends only, and 7 percent were isolated from family members only.

Of concern, however, were the 5 percent of elderly who were socially isolated from both family and friends, which may place them at risk for physical and mental health problems, researchers say.

Men were more likely than women to be socially isolated. Women’s lifelong investments in family and friend networks, often through their social roles as caregivers to others, suggest that they may be less likely to experience social isolation as they age. African-American, black Caribbean, and white older adults reported similar levels of social isolation from family and friends.

Further, older adults who live with family members may still report social isolation from friends, suggesting that these family members and friends have distinctive and complementary roles in terms of social isolation.

“In essence, our findings indicated that living arrangements themselves—alone or with others—were not indicative of social contact or engagement,” says lead author Linda Chatters, professor of social work and professor of public health at the University of Michigan.

Bottom Line for Mentoring Programs

As has been discussed in other articles here on the Chronicle, engaging older adults as mentors can serve a variety of benefits for everyone involved. It is likely that a program involving socially isolated older adults would take some additional planning and support from the program, including more diverse methods of outreach, training (for both staff and the mentors), and clear expectations of and for the mentees, but for programs with the capacity to pursue this path, expanding mentoring further into this area could serve as a valuable social benefit for youth, older adults, and programs alike.

To access the original research, click here.