Type of Document Dissertation Author Pai, Manacy Author's Email Address email@example.com URN etd-07032008-124618 Title Later Life Social Engagement and Health Degree Doctor of Philosophy Department Sociology, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title Anne E. Barrett Committee Chair Jill Quadagno Committee Member Robin W. Simon Committee Member Mary A. Gerend Outside Committee Member Keywords
- Social Engagement
- Older Adults
- Mental Health
- Informal Helping
Date of Defense 2008-05-12 Availability unrestricted AbstractABSTRACT
The topic of later life social engagement is of growing importance worldwide given the confluence of large demographic, economic, and sociocultural trends. However, empirical research in this area faces some serious theoretical and methodological limitations. The purpose of this study was to address these limitations by: (1) examining the later life mental and physical health effects of five social roles, namely paid work, formal volunteering, informal helping, caregiving, and religious participation; (2) assessing the health impact of combining various social roles among older adults; and (3) evaluating whether the health effects of social engagement differ for older adults of varying race and SES groups.
These questions were examined using data from two waves (1986 and 1989) of the Americansí Changing Lives Study (ACL); this nationally representative data, subset to adults aged 50 and over (N = 1,614), are among the best available for research on later life social engagement. Ordinary Least Square Regression is employed to estimate multivariate linear regression models that assess relationships among aspects of social engagement, social structure, and mental and physical health.
Bivariate analyses reveal race and SES variations in social engagement. In particular, while White and upper SES older adults have higher rates of participation in paid work, formal volunteering, and caregiving, a significantly greater proportion of Black and lower SES elders are engaged in activities that are less formal, including informal helping, and religious participation. Multivariate analyses indicate that certain roles and role clusters are especially health enhancing. Specifically, three roles, including paid work, formal volunteering, and informal helping result in improvements in mental health. Neither caregiving nor religious participation is found to affect changes in mental health in this sample of older adults. In terms of physical health, all roles except caregiving are significantly predictive of improvements in functional health. In addition to single roles, multiple role performance is found to positively impact both mental and physical health in later life.
Findings related to role combinations revealed that being involved in volunteer work, informal helping, and religious activities enhances mental health among those who are caregivers. Results also indicated that the impact of being an informal helper is greater for those involved in religious activities than their peers who are religious participants. Two role combinations emerged statistically significant predictors of physical health. In particular, both volunteering and informal helping enhanced physical health benefits of paid work in later life. In other words, while working for pay results in improved physical health, the benefits attached to this role are greater for those who also are involved in helping activities, such as formal volunteering and informal helping.
Analyses related to SES reveal that lower SES older adults benefit more from occupying several social roles compared to their upper SES counterparts. In particular, while the mental health benefits of working for pay, formal volunteering, and informal helping are greater for older adults with lower educational attainment, the physical health gains of paid work, volunteering, and informal helping are greater for the elderly with low levels of income and assets. Unlike SES, however, overall findings revealed that White and Black older adults are more similar than different in terms of the health benefits they derive from being socially engaged. There are only two instances, where race differentials emerge. First, I find older Blacks but not Whites to benefit from paid work; and second, results revealed older African caregivers to report greater functional impairment than their White peers.
The present study on social engagement in later life has important implications for social policy and social work practice and research. A solid understanding of the consequences associated with late life social involvement is critical to policymakers and practitioners as they attempt to better address the challenges and capitalize upon the enormous growth of elders. As these findings suggest, older adults do benefit from social engagement. However, the mental and physical health benefits of certain roles vary by older adultsí race and SES. These group variations may indicate that the meaning, importance, and health effects of social engagement may be socially and economically driven. Specifically, my study points out that our efforts to promote social engagement should include our efforts to identify the differences within the elderly population.
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