November 04, 2009

Study focuses on seniors’ health, social connections

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Standard RX for seniors: Eat better, exercise more and get regular medical check-ups. But a Southern Illinois University Carbondale gerontologist wouldn’t stop there. He prescribes friendly faces and a healthy dose of community service, too.

“The extents to which you have a network of people you regularly communicate with and are engaged in the life of the community have an effect on your sense of wellbeing,” said Dhrubodhi Mukherjee, an assistant professor of social work who specializes in the study of aging.

“The more isolated you are, the more likely you are to suffer chronic illness.”

Mukherjee has recently finished a study examining the links between social connections and health in those 55 and older and has submitted his conclusions to the “Journal of Gerontological Social Work” for possible publication. He will talk about his findings at noon Thursday, Nov. 12, in Room 219 of Wham Education Building on the SIUC campus as part of the College of Education and Human Services’ free brown bag lecture series. Those attending may bring their lunches; the dean’s office will provide light refreshments.

Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam popularized the term “social capital” in his 2000 non-fiction bestseller, “Bowling Alone.” It refers to the web of both individual and community connections that produce emotional support, trust, a sense of belonging and meaning, and a willingness to help each other.

Mukherjee’s doctoral dissertation looked at the influence of the Internet on social capital. He started thinking about the relationship between social capital and health after reading that in 2030, largely due to the aging Baby Boomers, one of every five Americans -- 71.5 million people -- would be 65 or older.

“Medicare and Social Security programs are underfunded, so nursing homes and other institutional solutions will be less available, and the Baby Boomers haven’t been very good about saving their money,” Mukherjee said.

“If they fall ill, the rest of us will have to pay to take care of them, so I began to ask myself how we could improve their health and stave off their physical ailments. That became the focus of my study.”

In conducting his study, Mukherjee drew upon the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, data collected in 2000 by a team, led by Putnam, from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Nearly 30,000 people from 29 states contributed, answering a series of questions aimed at uncovering the depth and breadth of their community ties.

Concentrating on a subset of 471 people between the ages of 55 and 79, Mukherjee tried to find out whether having a lot of social capital -- measured by such factors as the presence of friends who provide emotional support, social outings, participation in church activities and a sense of trust, among others -- leads to a sense of physical wellbeing in older adults. He focused on how healthy these folks thought they were rather than on their medical records because other researchers have found links between such perceptions and actual health. In addition, when people believe they’re basically healthy, they generally cope better with any illness they might have.

To examine the survey data, Mukerhjee used a form of analysis that could determine whether relationships existed between the factors he had selected. He found statistically significant correlations between them and the perception of health.

If connections equal good health, the Baby Boomers may have some trouble plugging in.

“Research suggests that they are more likely to have children settling far away from them, so their risk of social isolation is higher,” Mukherjee said.

They’re not likely to go in much for church-related activities, either.

“These guys have a certain lack of belief,” Mukherjee said. “The big question is how to get them involved.”

Because of the research he did for his dissertation, Mukherjee believes part of the answer lies in the Internet.

“Virtual volunteering -- whether it’s serving as a mentor or preparing materials for non-profit organizations -- lets you help someone without even leaving the house,” he said.

“You can get a sense of achievement and relevance because someone is relying on you.”

The Internet also hosts blogs, chat rooms, forums and such that bring like-minded souls together, and Boomers are well situated to take advantage of that.

“They have lived much of their active lives in the Internet age -- they’re not afraid of it,” Mukherjee said.

For social workers in the coming decades, Mukherjee believes the implications of his study are clear.

“We have always focused on the client, but I think the network model is important, too,” he said.

“We need to look at relationships the client has and how active those relationships are. We should focus on methods of nurturing the relationships and on helping clients reach out and form new ones with both people and institutions.”