Australian Health Review Australian Health Review Society
Journal of the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association
RESEARCH ARTICLE (Open Access)

Social participation as an indicator of successful aging: an overview of concepts and their associations with health

Heather Douglas A C , Andrew Georgiou B and Johanna Westbrook B

A School of Psychology and Exercise Science, Murdoch University, #06-04 Kings Centre, 390 Havelock Road, 169662, Singapore.

B Centre for Health Systems and Safety Research, Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Level 6, 75 Talavera Road, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia. Email: Andrew.Georgiou@mq.edu.au; Johanna.Westbrook@mq.edu.au

C Corresponding author. Email: h.douglas@murdoch.edu.au

Australian Health Review - https://doi.org/10.1071/AH16038
Submitted: 9 February 2016  Accepted: 16 August 2016   Published online: 7 October 2016

Abstract

Objectives Social participation has generated a wealth of research in gerontology, but the concept suffers from a lack of conceptual clarity that renders it difficult to define and measure. This means that research on social participation is difficult to compare directly. The aim of the present study was to draw the literature on social participation in older adults together to inform health services researchers seeking to investigate social participation as an indicator of successful aging.

Methods A narrative review of studies investigating the association between social participation and health in adults aged 65 years and older was conducted.

Results Three concepts of social participation (i.e. social connections, informal social participation and volunteering) were defined, their measurement instruments described and evidence of their associations with health explored. All three concepts have demonstrated associations with an array of health indicators. Prospective studies reveal that social participation at baseline is positively associated with mental and physical health.

Conclusion A model of social participation on health is presented, showing the evidence that all three concepts contribute to the association between social participation and health through their shared mechanisms of social support and social cohesion with the wider community. Using an instrument that can be separated into these three distinct concepts will assist health services researchers to determine the relative effect of each form of participation on the health of older adults.

What is known about the topic? Social participation has generated a wealth of research in gerontology. The scope of the literature on social participation is broad and the concepts diverse. For this reason, most previous systematic reviews have been unable to comprehensively assess the effect of all concepts of social participation on health. This means the research on social participation is difficult to compare directly, and indicators of social participation in older adults are difficult for policy makers to select.

What does this paper add? This paper overviews the three concepts of social participation, their methods of measurement and their associations with health in older adults. We present a model of social participation that incorporates all three concepts of social participation and their effects on health. We argue that the use of a measure that can be segmented into each of the three forms of social participation will predict more of the variance in health outcomes than any measure on its own.

What are the implications for practitioners? Enhancing the social participation of older adults is a key factor in successful aging that many older adults value. However, many service provision organisations tend to focus on meeting the specific physical needs of clients, rather than targeting services that connect older adults with their community. Targeting social participation may present one of the greatest opportunities to improve older adults’ general health, and will also generate societal benefits by increasing community contributions from this group. Selecting an indicator of social participation that measures each of the three concepts overviewed in this paper will enable policy makers to identify the areas in which social interventions for older adults will have the most effect.

Additional keywords: health status indicators, social participation, social cohesion, social capital.


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