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For Seniors Aging In Place, Neighborhood Social Cohesion Is Key

Older adults living alone are more likely to be emotionally well if they feel close to their neighbors and connected to their community, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh.

Based on interviews and surveys conducted by the University Department of Psychiatry and University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR), researchers determined that seniors choosing to stay in their homes, sometimes called "aging in place," were generally happier when they felt like they could rely on neighbors.

“It was really social components of the neighborhood,” said Sarah Stahl, assistant professor of psychiatry at Pitt and one of the authors of the study. “Feeling like you have a well-defined circle of neighborhood friends, that was really important to people.”

Stahl and her team examined data from the 2014 State of Aging in Allegheny County Report and interviewed participants about what characteristics they enjoy about their neighborhood.

“We were trying to figure out, what could we do to promote feelings of neighborhood social cohesion?” Stahl said.

Older adults aging in place and living alone are an especially important demographic to study, according to Stahl. She said the group is “high risk” for early mortality and is more likely to be socially isolated than people living with a spouse or partner.

“Future research in this area needs to focus on if we can develop environmentally-drive interventions,” Stahl said.

Seniors crave familiarity 

Emily Anderson, a social worker and care coach with the  Caregivers First Initiative, said the Pitt study reflected her experience with older adults. She said people like to be independent and say they’re most comfortable where they’re familiar.

Anderson’s focus is primarily on caregivers and said even that relationship is important to an older adult’s emotional wellbeing.

“One of the really important things for people to age in place are their family and how close they are to their family,” Anderson said.

She said in her experience, the denser the neighborhood, the better it is for seniors. She found that neighborhoods that work well for students are the same ones that would work well for older people for the same reasons: walkability, access to transportation and entertainment.

Home renovations ease aging

As the population of Allegheny County gets older, the concept of aging in place is becoming more prominent. In September, AARP and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging released the first round of plans for making the region part of a network of “Age-Friendly Communities.”

Among the findings, the plan states that Allegheny County residents over 50 years old have lived in their home for an average of 24 years and their communities for 32. It also says that 89 percent of respondents “are in contact with family, friends or neighbors weekly.”

Most of those surveyed expressed a desire to stay in their current home as they aged, however 1 out of 5 respondents said they needed to make major repairs or modifications to their residence.

Wilson Architecture and Design principal Maria Wilson is very familiar with adapting homes for older adults. She became an "aging in place specialist" three years ago, meaning she completed a certification course focused on implementing ideas that make aging easier for homeowners.

That means, according to Wilson, making changes like putting an outlet at the bottom and the top of the stairs so that you can install a stair-lift in the future, as well as entry doors wide enough to easily accommodate  wheelchairs.

Even when her clients aren't seniors, Wilson said she encourages them to think about integrating some of the ideas into their home renovations just in case.

Wilson said her clients typically want to remain in their communities, even if it means over-investing for their geographic area.

“This is their lifestyle, they want to remain in the community, they want to be close to their grandchildren, they like walking to the coffee shop to meet their friends in the morning,” Wilson said. “My experience would support the research.”

Social contact improves overall health

More research still needs to be done on how to improve the quality of life for older adults, according to Sarah Papperman, team leader of the In-Service of Seniors Pittsburgh Program at Family Services of Western Pennsylvania.

Papperman trains volunteers who interact with seniors and said she talks a lot about how the experience of those living alone can vary.

“A lot of what we talk about is just being sensitive to other people,” Papperman said. “People will be responding to changes in their lives differently."

In-service volunteers can help decrease social isolation, Papperman said, even if they just provide a ride to the doctor’s office.

Within the next two decades, AARP of Southwestern Pennsylvania estimates the number of residents between 65 and 84 years old will increase by 45 percent. 

(Photo credit: neovain/Flickr)

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm
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