Socialization Linked to a Sense of Purpose in Older Adults

For older adults, maintaining social ties can be a challenge—especially when barriers like limited mobility or other issues get in the way. During the era of COVID-19, technology-enabled connections helped to reduce isolation, but for many, that just wasn’t the same as enjoying in-person activities with one or more family members or friends. 

The benefits of socialization have been demonstrated in various studies over the years—including recent research that tied it to a sense of purpose in older adults. 

Socialization and Purposefulness

Published in the July 2022 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the study, “Being Social May Be Purposeful in Older Adulthood: A Measurement Burst Design,” concluded that “Positive social interactions thus may help older adults maintain purposefulness, particularly after retirement.”

Study highlights include: 

  • What is the primary question addressed by this study? “The current paper utilizes a measurement burst design to investigate whether sense of purpose varies at the daily level in older adults, and to what extent that variability is due to positive or negative social interactions throughout the day.”
  • What is the main finding of this study? “About 40% of the variability in daily purpose occurs within-person, and that within-person variability is connected to social interaction quality. In general, older adults who have better social interactions are more purposeful, and on days in which they have better social interactions than normally do, they also feel more purposeful than they normally do. This effect is particularly strong for older adults who are no longer working.”
  • What is the meaning of the finding? “The within-person variability daily purpose displayed in the current sample shows promise for future intervention efforts that can focus on short-term change, and enhancing social networks and connections may be one pathway to bolster sense of purpose more broadly. These findings are particularly relevant for more vulnerable populations known to experience purpose decline, such as retirees. By enhancing sense of purpose, older adults will then be more likely to experience the valuable cognitive and physical healthy aging benefits that come with it.”

Quoted in a Neuroscience News article reporting on the results, lead study author Gabrielle Pfund  underscored the importance of the results. 

“Specifically for our retired older adults, this is a construct we should really care about,” Pfund said, also noting that results indicated that sense of purpose within an individual isn’t necessarily a steady state. 

“Most research on sense of purpose is focused on big-picture orientation of someone being purposeful versus someone being not purposeful,” she said. 

But the article noted that even though some individuals may display more or less of a tendency toward purposefulness, study findings indicated it can fluctuate.

“We found purpose can change from day to day,” Pfund said. “Everyone was experiencing fluctuations relative to their own averages.”

Results indicated this was especially true for retired individuals, in which “more positive social interactions showed a stronger association with a higher sense of purpose while more negative interactions were more strongly tied to a lower sense of purpose,” according to the article. 

“For everyone, but specifically for our retired older adults, the people in their lives really matter,” Pfund said.

Socialization in Senior Communities

For some older adults, relying on research about the benefits of socialization isn’t necessary. Instead, they just know they need regular interactions with others. 

A recent MarketWatch article captured the sentiment like this: “For some retirees, resilience comes with this new phase of life. They carry with them years of experience, professional accomplishments and just living life. And for some, living near others like themselves gives them a sense of community, comfort, and security. For these people, even the pandemic hasn’t stopped them from wanting to live near others while maintaining their privacy.”

Quoted in the article, Carol, a woman in her mid-80s whose husband had died the previous year, put it simply.

“I just didn’t want to be alone,” she said. 

Describing the options and amenities at the retirement community she selected, Carol noted that “I am a social being. I didn’t really want to be isolated. But I can be if I want to.”

Several experts cited in the article described the upward trend in occupancy in various types of senior communities—including Julie Sabag, director of sales and marketing at Fox Hill Residences, a retirement community in Bethesda, Md. 

She said for many, the interest is being driven by the social benefits of living in these types of communities. 

“They’re moving there for a purpose,” Sabag said. “It’s an opportunity for friendship. …The majority of people who are moving in are (seeking) ‘that social opportunity.’” 

Of the many benefits that marketers for senior communities can tout—opportunities for socialization may be some of the most important to include.  

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Published On: January 26, 2023

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