Developing patterns of social engagement is a lifelong process that begins at birth and evolves as we age. What happens to the process as we leave our homes and enter a congregate setting or assisted living (AL)? Since research suggests that interpersonal interactions in AL or other long-term care settings are associated with positive outcomes such as improved quality of life and overall wellbeing, understanding how the process changes in AL and what patterns may emerge might help senior living providers foster better quality of life in these settings.
To better understand social engagement patterns in AL, researchers conducted interviews with 29 AL residents in four AL settings between February and July 2007. The residences varied in terms of size (large or small) and location (urban or rural), though all were in Alabama. All residents were 65 or better and without a diagnosis of dementia. The researchers coded the interview data to identify themes relevant to the experience of social engagement of the residents.
The researchers presented their results across five themes:
- “Characteristics of desired social relationships.”
For example, those outside of the residence were highly valued.
- “The perspective of time and loss influencing social investment.”
Attention to the passage of time seems to discourage investing in close relationships, as residents were aware of their own limited time and that of others.
- “Barriers to social engagement based on age-related changes and AL practices.” Cognitive and hearing difficulties hindered residents’ attempts to build relationships, but so, too, did the practice of required seating at meal times.
- “Perceived resources for social engagement.”
Access to children and family, friends outside of the AL residence, the ability to participate in outings, and the initiative of staff to engage in conversation were all positive resources for engaging residents.
- “Strategies to achieve/modify social relationships.”
Some residents reported choosing solitary activities to avoid stressful or unpleasant interactions with other residents.
The implications from this research for senior living providers is that while certain policies and practices appear to negatively shape social interactions and may even deter residents from developing social interactions, there are a host of opportunities for encouraging social interactions. Whether through actively providing social opportunities through collaboration with other community organizations such as high schools, universities or churches, or through encouraging resident resiliency and skills to heighten opportunities for interaction, the provider can shape the climate that may foster social engagement.