Social isolation is increasingly receiving attention from many sectors including health and social care sector, community-based organizations, the voluntary sector, as well as local authorities. While social isolation is experienced at all stage of life, adverse impacts are felt mostly by older adults. A majority of older adults are isolated and suffer from loneliness in most countries. Such states are often associated with adverse impacts such as poor health and high mortality rates. Regarding health, social isolation paves the way for health risks including high blood pressure and obesity. Social isolation also triggers unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors such as smoking, uncontrolled consumption of alcohol, and drug abuse. That there is escalation in the risk of social isolation for many older adults puts them on high alert for life-threatening consequences. Social health, when combined with physical and psychological health, helps in determining wellbeing in late adulthood. This paper delves into the issue of social isolation in late adulthood. It includes a literature review on the topic, a narrative of an interview with an individual on the topic area, a discussion of the problem using developmental theories, application of relevant aspects of the Afrocentric perspective, and implications for social work.
Literature Review on Topic
Social isolation is gradually becoming an issue of concern globally. Kaye and Singer (2018) underscore this perception with their focus on how the scourge of social isolation threatens older adult health. Kaye and Singer (2018, p. 3) argues that there has been an increase in the number of older adults experiencing social isolation in recent years. Consequently, the issue has attracted the attention of various stakeholders in the social and health sector. Governments have also shown concern to the issue with most coming up with programs aimed at addressing the vice. For instance, in 2017, the U.S. government, through the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, sought to resolve the increasing risk of social isolation for older adults most of whom are disconnected in every respect from other individuals and communities. According to Kaye and Singer (2018, p. 3), between 1980 and 2010, a 40 percent increase was recorded in the number of people who live alone. This figure translated to almost 43 percent in the prevalence of social isolation and loneliness, particularly among older adults in the global community. Another challenge in social isolation in late adulthood is stoicism and resistance among older adults while seeking support or assistance from other community members (Püllüm & Akyıl, 2017, p. 159). The challenge places older adults at an even a higher risk of isolation.
Addressing social isolation requires special focus for all involved stakeholders. Durcan and Bell (2015, p. 6) explore social isolation with a specific focus on how the problem can be addressed across the life course. The challenges witnessed around social isolation can be drawn from the fact that not many people understand what social isolation entails (Júnior et al., 2018, p. 273). In today’s society, many people unknowingly subject others to social isolation. Durcan and Bell (2015, p. 8) defines social isolation as the state in which one is deprived of social relationships that not only help with the provision of feedback but are also meaningful at individual level. Although the terms social isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably, there is a notable difference between the two. Loneliness is majorly an emotional perception that may be experienced by individuals irrespective of how broad their social networks are. Late adulthood is one of developmental stages during which individuals mostly experience social isolation. A common assumption is that late adulthood is a phase marking improved wellbeing for individuals owing to the reduction in the burden of work pressures. It is also presumed that late adulthood is an age whereby people have time and opportunity to participate in a variety of activities such as socializing, arts and culture, sports, and volunteering, among others (Durcan & Bell, 2015, p. 24). Unfortunately, it is during late adulthood that many people face an increased risk of social isolation. That the risk of social isolation in late adulthood is accompanied by an increased risk of mortality is disheartening. Thus, older adults must be introduced to interventions that can help to avert the problem of social isolation. Encouraging older adults to share their experiences and activities with others can help them to strengthen existing networks and create new ones, thereby reducing the risk of social isolation (Durcan & Bell, 2015, p. 43). Participation in physical activity is highly encouraged for older adults as it aligns with social connectedness.
Social relationships are critical to a person’s wellbeing. A study by Steptoe et al. (2013) expansively explores the issue of social isolation in older men and women. The study underlines the importance of social relationships to human wellbeing and maintenance of health (p. 5797). Social isolation is akin to reduced social relationships and is a quantifiable reflection of paucity of social contact and reduced social network size (Yang et al., 2016, p. 579). Social isolation is a major problem in late adulthood, a period in which an individual may witness a decrease in economic resources, impairment in mobility, and loss of contemporaries who succumb to various conditions or factors (Vozikaki et al., 2018, p. 506). Older individuals who are socially isolated face an increased risk of the development of health complications including cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases, and deterioration in cognitive abilities (National Institute on Aging, 2019). Social isolation in late adulthood is also closely linked to other complications such as high blood pressure, C-reactive protein and fibrinogen, as well as increased inflammatory and metabolic responses to stress-related events (Steptoe et al., 2013, p. 5797). A psychological embodiment of social isolation is loneliness, which is linked to increased incidences of cardiovascular diseases and even mortality.
To gain insight into the issue of social isolation in late adulthood, I conducted an interview with a 70-year-old man, Mr. Thomas, who also happened to be my neighbor. I conducted the interview at his home on a Friday evening while he was relaxing in his backyard. Mr. Thomas acknowledged my presence and was surprised that I chose him for the interview in which his life experiences, thoughts, and story would be recorded. He confirmed that he had lived his entire life in Atlanta City having been born in the city. Thomas is the youngest in a family of three with him as the only male child. Both of his parents died before his seventeenth birthday. His mother succumbed to breast cancer at middle age whereas his father was involved in an accident on his way home from work and later succumbed to sustained injuries.
I proceeded to ask Thomas about his perceptions of aging, to which his response was “age is inevitable and all of us must go through it.” Thomas further stated that aging is a naturally-occurring process laid out by God that marks one’s transition from childhood to adulthood. He confirmed that the process presents with numerous challenges including health complications and increased instances of social isolation. He stated that after his retirement, he has since battled leukemia that has drained all his financial resources. Following his retirement, Thomas divorced his wife after a long period of familial problems. His wife had resorted to desertion owing to the imminent financial troubles that lay ahead of them. Thomas had only one daughter who had been married to a man with whom she lived in San Francisco, California. His daughter is several miles away from him. Although his two sisters live in Atlanta, they visit him occasionally. Thomas confirmed that they had both visited him once in the past two months. From his words, Thomas was experiencing social isolation. He had only one friend in the neighborhood who also battled pancreatic cancer, which limited the frequency of their meet-ups. Thomas confirmed that the social isolation was taking a toll on him from a health perspective. He stated that he would always wake up at 6 every morning to think about how dire his life and overall situation are. The heightened level of social isolation had also seen him develop high blood pressure, which, alongside leukemia, threatened his life. With no hope in life, Thomas stated that he was no longer scared of death and was ready for any eventuality. However, he stressed the need for the government and other stakeholders to show concern to older adults by putting in place interventions that can address social isolation in late adulthood.
Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Level Influences
From the interview, Thomas’s problem of social isolation is influenced by various factors at micro, mezzo, and macro levels. The micro level points to one’s interactions as an individual in their social setting. Drawing from the interview, micro-level forces influencing Thomas’s social isolation include; the lack of support from family or colleagues, lack of interprofessional teamwork, his deteriorating health and physical condition, and the fact that he lives in isolation far from his siblings and only child. The macro-level refers to interactions from a wider perspective that influence Thomas’s social isolation problem. Some of the macro-level forces that contribute to his social isolation include; inadequate support and funding by the government for older adults, lack of policies and regulatory systems that favor older adults, lack of jobs, and inadequate programs aimed at addressing the problem (Landeiro et al., 2017, p. 1). Between the micro and macrolevels is the meso level, which entails forces within the community or village a person lives. Some of the meso-level forces influencing his social problem include lack of community support for older adults, minimal social networks for people of his age, lack of community programs to address social isolation experienced by people of his age, as well as the fact that community members are too occupied to allocate or spend time with older adults in the community.
Application of A Developmental Theory to The Social Problem
The field of psychology, through various developmental theories, explains the development of humans from childhood to adulthood. Psychologists often seek to give an insight into the factors that affect human development and stages of development that are most susceptible to influence from external factors. They also seek to answer the question of what can be done to maximize human growth and development and minimize possible detrimental factors. Two developmental theories that can be applied to the topic of social isolation and explain the reason for Thomas’s social isolation problem are Erikson’s Psychosocial developmental theory and the Ecological theory.
Erikson’s theory argues that psychosocial development occurs in eight stages, which occur throughout humans’ lifespan from infancy through late adulthood. Every stage of psychosocial development involves the resolution of a particular crisis or task with successful completion of the task or resolution of crisis leading to a healthy personality and a sense of competence (Cherry, 2020). When an individual fails to master or complete the tasks at any given stage, he or she might develop feelings of inadequacy. The eight stages of psychosocial development include; trust vs mistrust, autonomy vs shame/doubt, initiative vs guilt, industry vs inferiority, identity vs role confusion, intimacy vs isolation, generativity vs stagnation, as well as integrity vs despair (Cherry, 2020). The stage that best applies to the problem of social isolation in late adulthood is integrity vs despair. Erikson, in explaining the “integrity vs despair” task, argues that people in late adulthood tend to reflect on their lives and feel a sense of failure or sense of satisfaction. Individuals who take pride in their life accomplishments often feel a sense of integrity, and they often look back at their lives with minimal regrets (Syed & McLean, 2017, p. 2). On the contrary, people who are unsuccessful at this stage are likely to feel that they have wasted their lives. Such people face late adulthood with depression, bitterness, and despair. Social isolation in late adulthood can be attributed to people developing a feeling of despair upon the realization that they wasted their early years. People who feel that they wasted their life can resort to isolating themselves from others. They can also be isolated by other people who are proud of their accomplishments and feel that interacting with others who have nothing to celebrate in late adulthood is impractical. This best explains Thomas’s situation. He is currently undergoing depression owing to the numerous life problems he has experienced most of which have contributed to his current financial predicaments. The depression has since resulted in his isolation from other community members.
Relevant Aspects of the Afrocentric Perspective
Afrocentricity is defined as a mode of thought and action predominated by the centrality of African interest, values, as well as perspectives. This mode of thought or action tends to place African people at the forefront of analysis involving African or Black phenomena (Bent-Goodley, Fairfax, & Carlton-LaNey, 2017, p. 1). With regard to action, the focus is primarily on what is in the best interest of African consciousness. An action that has the best interest of African consciousness then qualifies to be an ethical action or behavior. The Afrocentric perspective also enshrines an idea that blackness is a set of ethics, which implies that having an Afrocentric consciousness translates to one’s opposition of sexism, oppression, gender bias, and others (Schiele, 1997, p. 21). In the social work practice context, the Afrocentric perspective attempts to prepare individuals to address specific social, psychological, economic, and spiritual problems that are encountered by Africans and to address the problems experienced by all people (Pellebon, 2007, p. 171). There exist ten concepts specific of the Afrocentric perspective. They include; humanistic values, autonomy, strengths perspective, matrix roles, spiritual balance, collective view of self, universalistic and particularistic, significance of self-knowledge and personal experience, validation of circular and linear logic, as well as intuitive.
Two concepts of the Afrocentric perspective that are relevant or applicable to the topic and would help to inform my practice of engagement with the interviewee are humanistic values and autonomy. The concept of humanistic values prioritizes elimination of human oppression and enhancement of human potential (Chawane, 2016, p. 82). This is accomplished through valuing of humanistic principles that contribute to the advancement of equity, fairness, as well as social and economic justice practice and concerns If my engagement with Thomas were to be guided by the concept of humanistic values, I would have to focus on eliminating the oppression or troubles he is currently facing. For instance, I would prioritize the financial predicaments that are contributing to Thomas’s depression and ultimate isolation. The concept of autonomy emphasizes freedom of self and action in a bid to address and eliminate racial oppression and all other forms of human oppression (Schiele, 2017, p. 16). This perspective of autonomy would inform my engagement with Thomas as I would be forced to grant him freedom and space to address the various forms of human oppression he is experiencing. An example is the fact that he lives with his siblings in the same city but cannot see them regularly as he would wish. As part of granting him freedom to eliminate this form of oppression, I would allow him to give his opinion on how or ways he deems appropriate in addressing the issue. My decisions would thus be dependent on his opinions or views with regard to addressing the problem.
Implications for Social Work
The interview with Thomas on the issue of social isolation in late adulthood would have various implications for social work. Currently, there is paucity in knowledge of social isolation in older adults. This interview would thus be a critical step in enhancing people’s knowledge, understanding, and awareness of the social problem. The interview would then pave the way for further indulgence on the social problem particularly in social work practice. With information on some of the risk factors for social isolation in late adulthood, future social work practice would focus on ways or interventions of addressing the social problem in society. Concepts of the African Perspective leveraged in the interview process would also be integrated into future social work practice. If the concepts of humanistic values and autonomy were to prove effective in addressing the social problem, they would be part of future social work practice aimed at addressing a particular social problem.
Social isolation in late adulthood remains a huge challenge in society today. A major impact of the issue is that it threatens the health and wellbeing of older adults pointing to the need to address the same. To dig into the issue of social isolation in late adulthood, an interview was conducted with Thomas who gave insights into its risk factors. The risk factors were explored from micro, meso, and macro levels. Erikson’s Psychosocial development theory can be applied to the topic. Through the final stage of integrity vs despair, it explains the reasons behind the social isolation experienced during late adulthood. Two concepts of the Afrocentric perspective, humanistic values and autonomy, are also applied to the topic with a focus on how they would help to inform the practice of engagement with the interviewee. Since there is paucity of knowledge on social isolation in late adulthood, the interview lays the ground for more social work practice on the topic.
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