Recently, a researcher explored how social talk may support isolated older adults aging in place. This study earned a bronze 2019 Mather LifeWays Innovative Research on Aging Award.
Four or five times a week, the author visited a bakery located near a naturally occurring retirement community to observe how older patrons interact with one another. Over the course of a year, she observed 136 different individuals age 60 or better, of which 47 were “regulars.” Most of these older adults were low-to-middle income and lived alone, so visiting the bakery and similar locations was their primary source of social interaction.
Through analysis of these observations, the author found that gossip played a key role in keeping these older adults socially engaged. One conversational theme was setting limits on how members of the group interact with one another. For example, older adults who had a negative attitude, lacked a social filter, or solicited handouts were often talked of when they were not present. This served as a way for the group to set boundaries of acceptable behavior without starting conflict and seemed to strengthen the bond between group members who were “in on” the gossip. Rude individuals were not outright rejected, but tended to be on the outskirts of the group.
Another theme was using gossip as entertainment, mostly in the form of jokes at another’s expense. This was mostly good-natured, but also served as a way to share information on sensitive topics, such as signs of cognitive decline. It also helped group members distance themselves from their own personal fears, while sharing concern for others’ mental health. This was related to the third theme—information sharing—which often served to encourage social support and assistance for group members in need.
Although gossip is usually perceived as being negative, the author suggests that this type of dynamic may have helped some group members maintain their independence longer than if they had not had these social connections. In fact, members of this group tended to show genuine concern for one another, even for those who were the object of gossip.
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