Social Well-being

The social well-being of older adults is dependent on positive, durable relationships and sustained access to community roles and social institutions.
In this report, we refer to three subsets of older adults. Younger-old: age 55-64 Middle-old: age 65-84 Oldest-old: age 85+

The social well-being of older adults is dependent on positive, durable relationships and sustained access to community roles and social institutions. This section of the report discusses social inclusion and purposeful living. Key findings include:

  • About half of older adults report having opportunities to participate in community matters, while 14 percent report having used a senior center in their community.
  • More older adults in Central Indiana report feelings of loneliness or social isolation—39 percent in 2021 compared to 33 percent in 2017.
  • In Indiana, disability is one of the biggest contributors to isolation in older adults.
  • It is difficult for providers to find or reach isolated older adults.

Social Inclusion and Purposeful Living

Social inclusion is the extent to which individuals take part in society. It spans both individual and institutional (e.g., family, church, work) levels. Most individuals must experience social inclusion to find meaning in life.1 2

In contrast, social exclusion is a lack of social roles or access to institutions, resulting in social isolation. Most can survive at low levels of social inclusion but quality of life is adversely affected. Research has found that people who experience social exclusion in early and mid-life experience more rapid biological aging and lower life expectancy.3 4

Social isolation is often experienced through negative emotions like anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Older adults may experience isolation for many reasons, including retirement, a significant other’s loss of cognition or physical function, a personal loss of health and function that leads to activity limitation, limited role opportunities afforded to older adults, and geographic dispersion of families. In addition, early- or mid-life isolation from institutions of learning and employment often result in limited resources throughout adulthood and into late life. For socioeconomically disadvantaged older adults, barriers to inclusion are very difficult to overcome and often experienced along with additional barriers such as poor-or-no affordable access to transportation. See section 6 of this report for further discussion of barriers to transportation access.

Whereas social inclusion includes ongoing access and interaction with other individuals and institutions, purposeful living entails the activities integral to those inclusive roles. In most cases, purposeful activities involve social inclusion or the anticipation of inclusion. An example of this is a volunteer role where access to and responsibility within the volunteer organization is the social inclusion from which purposeful activities are experienced.

A hobby practiced in isolation may seem to be an exception but this is an example of purpose derived in part from the anticipation of sharing, and the approval of others—i.e., social inclusion.

A national AARP survey in 2021 survey found that 27 percent of older adults report (age 50 or older) feel isolated. This isolation can be as a risk factor for depression and cognitive decline.5 For comparison, the rate was 44 percent for respondents age 18 to 49. The 2021 Community Assessment Survey for Older Adults (CASOA) found that 39 percent of older adults of Central Indiana report feelings of loneliness.6This is a significant increase from 33 percent in 2017.

Risk Factors for Social Isolation and Loneliness


While living alone is a risk factor for loneliness, it is important to note that living alone is not the same as loneliness or social exclusion.

Isolation is more prevalent among older adults experiencing poverty and those with less education as both situations predispose older adults to smaller social networks. (To learn more about the factors that can lead to social isolation among impoverished older adults experiencing poverty, please read ‘Highlighting Equity’ on page 8.7. ) In addition, disability that often accompanies age-related chronic illness is a factor in social isolation due to its negative impact on mobility and an individual’s physical and psychological environment.


Older Adult Social Well-Being During COVID-19 

The social well-being of adults was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Factors including social isolation, loss of valuable resources, and reduced job and volunteer opportunities contributed to this change. A study conducted with 99 older adults in Switzerland found that adult well-being and loneliness were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.7 The only measurement that was not adversely affected was satisfaction with communication with loved ones and health providers. The effects caused by loneliness were shown to be reduced for those with larger social networks, cohabitation, and constant social connection.

Communication technology became crucial for older adults’ social connection during the pandemic. A 2021 study suggests that a technology design method called “co-design” can improve older adults’ well-being.8 Co-design is when the end-user experience and expertise with technology is considered when designing programs.

Factors such as reduced eyesight, hearing impairment, and mobility issues all might impede technology use for older adults. These factors should be considered and accounted for so that the older adult population is accommodated. Digital peer support, when people are available to assist with technology problems, can also play a critical role in expanding access to communication technology.

Lockdowns posed serious barriers to physical activity, because in many cases it is carried out in public spaces, such as a gym, or in social atmospheres, such as with friends.9 Older adults who rely on community programs or reside in senior living facilities were heavily affected by reduced physical activity during lockdowns.

Volunteering is an important opportunity for social engagement. Older adults volunteer at a higher rate than the general population, but these opportunities were reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the CASOA survey, the share of older adults in Central Indiana reporting opportunities to volunteer fell from 80 percent in 2017 to 59 percent in 2021. However, the share volunteering their time rose from 36 percent to 50 percent.

One in three older adults in Central Indiana report being lonely.

Social Isolation

Socially isolated seniors are at heightened risk for poor health if they lack access to help when needed, from transportation for medical care to regular basic needs like food. In Eric Klinenberg’s study of heat-related deaths caused by the 1995 heatwave in Chicago, he found that the majority of deaths were older adults, and the majority of those experienced social isolation.10 While there is no standard aggregate measure available for social isolation, America’s Health Rankings created a measure of social isolation for older adults from survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, combining measures of disability, marital status, living alone and poverty.11 This approach was replicated for this report, with separate maps (shown on page 8.6) created for Marion County versus the surrounding counties, because demographically, these variables are significantly different between rural and urban areas.

Below are statistics about a few populations at special risk of social isolation. These are grandparents taking care of grandchildren, LGTBQ individuals, and non-English speaking households.

Grandparents Living with and Responsible for Grandchildren

Taking care of grandchildren provides meaning in many older adults’ lives. It can also be a risk for social isolation, as described below. In Central Indiana there are 21,400 households where grandparents are living with their grandchildren (3 percent of households). There is a greater poverty rate among households with these kinds of multigenerational families than those without (15 percent vs 11 percent). The racial and ethnic composition of many of these households is similar (Latinx, White, and other), although Black families are significantly more likely to be living in these multigenerational households. Of households where older grandparents are living with grandchildren, 38 percent have direct responsibility for those grandchildren. While Black and Latinx grandparents have similar rates of responsibility for their grandchildren, Black grandparents have slightly higher rates than White grandparents.

A review of national data found that the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren has risen significantly since 2010, describing several reasons for this trend, such as parental “substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence and parental incarceration.”12These grandparents often feel socially isolated from their peers and have less time to spend with their intimate partners, though the presence of social support systems mitigated these effects. Further, they found that these families faced financial instability, as well as negative physical and mental health outcomes. However, interventions can help develop coping mechanisms to build grandparent resiliency, decreasing these negative outcomes.13

LGBTQ+ Older Adults

While state counts of members of the LGBTQ+ community are difficult to get, there are an estimated 229,000 LGBTQ+ people in Indiana (those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) and 8% of those are older adults (approximately 18,320 who are age 65 and older). About 0.5 percent identify as transgender. According to a 2020 study, there are no state laws in Indiana protecting the LGBTQ+ populations in the categories of employment, education, public accommodations, housing, or credit.14This puts all members of LGBTQ+ communities, including older adults, at greater risk, as they often fear they have to hide their sex or gender status to prevent discrimination.15

The American Psychological Association reports that “Generational differences and lack of legal protection may cause older LGBTQ+ adults to be less open about their sexuality. Social isolation is also a concern because LGBTQ+ older adults are more likely to live alone, more likely to be single and less likely to have children than their heterosexual counterparts.”16

Non-English-Speaking Households

English is not the primary language in about 10 percent of Central Indiana households. Spanish is the primary language for five percent of households and some other language for six percent. Households where Spanish is the primary language have a higher chance of experiencing poverty than English-speaking households or some other language. Ponce, et al (2006), found that older adults with limited English proficiency were four times more likely to report feeling sad all or most of the time.17The Urban Institute (2018) found that limited English proficiency is the dominant predictor of low rates of homeownership, even when controlling for other factors.18

Older adults experiencing poverty are more likely to be socially isolated

Studies have shown that low-income older adults are less likely to have robust social networks and are more likely to be socially isolated than those with a higher socioeconomic status.19 Below are factors that can contribute to this disparity in social isolation for older adults experiencing poverty:

Individual factors

Poorer health:

Older adults with low incomes have greater physical decline and poorer psychological well-being than those with higher incomes.20 Due to their economic constraints, these individuals are less likely to be insured, afford prescriptions or access healthcare services.21 These challenges caused by poorer health can leave older adults more likely to be socially isolated.22 23 Black older adults may experience these barriers more acutely than their White peers, as one study found that Black older adults were 70 percent less likely to rate their physical health as ‘good’ compared to White older adults, even after controlling for other possible causes.24 This social isolation can in turn exacerbate the very health issues that may have contributed to isolation in the first place. 25

Fear of crime:

Individuals living in low-income households are more likely to be impacted by crimes than their higher-income peers. 26 26 Distrust and fear of crime can lead older adults in low-income neighborhoods to avoid social contact outside family or close friends. This often means less engagement in social activities and fewer people in their social networks.27 Focus groups conducted with older adults in Central Indiana revealed that this was much more of a concern in rural than in urban settings. However, older adults in urban areas were more afraid of being scammed over the phone than of crime in their neighborhoods. See the Community Perspective discussion found later in this section.

Interpersonal factors: Less likely to be married

Nearly 70 percent of older adults experiencing poverty are unmarried, meaning they are widowed, divorced, or never married.28 Roughly half of unmarried older adults report loneliness, which is a higher rate than their married counterparts.29 Black older adults may be at even greater risk for loneliness, as they are less likely to be married/ partnered than their White and Latinx peers.30

Community factors: fewer organizations and resources in low-income communities

Research has shown that many high-poverty neighborhoods have fewer community institutions such as churches, social clubs, and community organizations than high-income neighborhoods. This results in fewer opportunities for older adults to be involved in the community or expand their social networks.31

Community Perspective

Findings from Key Informant Interviews

Key informants for this report included those involved in senior care services or administration in Central Indiana.32 Isolation is considered by the informants to be harmful to older adults due to unattended health concerns, not eating properly, and low family contact. One informant noted that many of the individuals who seek out organizations are those without spouses who are looking for friendship and socialization.

Informants were not sure how to find or reach shut-ins—very isolated individuals—if they are not requesting services. In some cases, a professional caregiver will refer an older adult to a social service program. One informant mentioned that if they can get an older, isolated individual to their facility, they can usually get that individual to keep coming back, because they offer friendship, as well as resources, such as transportation and meals.
Older adults with resources have more options for social inclusion, including senior centers, games, book clubs, dancing clubs, and other activities.

In addition to physical resources, these activities require some mobility independence, transportation, social skills, and motivation sufficient to overcome uncertainty. Any of these can be a barrier even for older adults with financial means, and CASOA data show that few (14%) engage in such activities, even specifically older adult activities (e.g., senior centers).

Informants mentioned purposeful living activities, such as spirituality, church, and time with friends. Games, hobbies, and day trips were also mentioned, but in the context of spending time socializing with friendly others.

Findings from Focus Groups with Older Adults

Focus groups with older adults were conducted across Central Indiana. Some focus group participants expressed fear of becoming isolated. To counter this, some seek socialization through group involvement at churches or senior centers or engage in volunteerism. Activities are discovered through church, newspaper, mail flyers, bulletin boards at centers (e.g., YMCA), or libraries. Few expressed use of internet or social media to find activities. Some had smartphones, used mostly for calling and texting, rather than information look-up.

Circumstances that limit socialization include lack of family or family who do not come to visit, limited mobility, lack of transportation, the combination of limited mobility and lack of public transportation and limited financial resources for activities.

Purposeful living seemed to involve time with others including time with grandchildren and family, caregiving of spouse or others, volunteering and participating in church. A few individuals in the focus groups expressed enjoying activities on their own such as shopping, cooking or watching television.

Similar to key informants, several focus group participants expressed concern that there are many older adults who are isolated either by choice or circumstance and that it is difficult to reach these people or get information to them.33

What is Available or Being Done?

Interventions in Central Indiana to address social exclusion in older adults include several efforts. First, churches and families provide social inclusion opportunities for older adults in roles such as caregiver, sitter, and volunteer. Volunteer opportunities may be diverse within these institutions. Second, Senior Companions, which is a service that matches trained volunteers with older adults needing companionship, is reaching some isolated older adults living in Marion County. Third, senior centers and organizations offer social activities, as discussed above, including dancing, exercises, book clubs, and meals together. Even home-delivered meals, which provide social interaction, are not the same as social inclusion.

“One of the best sellers for meals program is that it was an interruption to a lonely life and human contact.”
– Key Informant

What are Ideas for Solutions?

One key informant described an idea for a program that is much like what Senior Companions now provides.

“It has been a thought to harness a group of volunteers or nursing students or a person with common sense to go into homes with high-risk people, check in with them and companionship support. These programs have been successful in other areas. It is a barrier to think a professional has to do this work. Nursing students would be great because they could perform blood pressure checks, weight checks, etc.”
– Key Informant

An interesting observation from Senior Companions is that the volunteers often seem to get more social satisfaction from the program than do the older adults needing companionship, which points to increased opportunities for older adults to volunteer as a path to interventions for well-being. Work by Johns Hopkins faculty in the Baltimore Experience Corps trial, which paired older adults with elementary school volunteers, showed increased physical, social, and cognitive activity engagement, and even slowed brain atrophy.34 Importantly, this trial involved older adults similar to the Indy Senior Companion participants—largely Black women with one to two years of post-high school education. The Experience Corps program is now supported by the AARP Foundation in 22 cities, including Evansville, Indiana, but not Indianapolis.

One informant felt strongly that services are not well coordinated or communicated to older adults and their families, and that better efforts in this area would match older adults to services and opportunities they need.

Bridging and Linking Social Capital

Social capital is a way of talking about how people access a variety of resources through both formal and informal social networks.35 It is important for older adults, as social capital is connected to social, physical, and emotional well-being.36 Social capital resources can include: opportunities for socialization and recreation; connections to paid or volunteer jobs; friendships with those who can provide informal help with small informal needs, such as a lift to the grocery or a simple car repair; and informal access to people who can make a connection to formal social service organizations for health, housing, legal, or other types of needs; people who can be trusted, allowing older adults to feel safe, resulting in increased interaction with others and enjoyment of outdoor spaces.

There are several types of social capital, some core types being bridging, bonding, and linking.37 Bonding and bridging capital are ways to talk about horizontal relationships between peers, while linking capital includes vertical connections to formal institutions or people with higher levels of social power. Bonding capital is related to trust people have with their neighbors, social cohesion, collective efficacy, feelings of safety, people’s willingness to help their neighbors, and civic participation.38 Bridging capital describes relationships occurring outside of one’s immediate social network, such as connections between older adults in one community to other social networks that have resources they may need. Both bridging and bonding capital are typically informal networks within and between communities. Linking capital allows individuals access to resources available through formal networks, such as non-profits or government services.

Older adults who are socially isolated often have deficits in all these forms of capital, since connections with other people in social networks form the core of social capital. Older adults tend to have stronger bonding capital than younger adults, and people living in cities tend to have stronger bridging capital than those in rural areas. However, some communities are excluded from many types of resources, whether from a history of social discrimination, or even residential patterns formed through segregation history.39 While segregation and historical discrimination against communities can limit some individuals from accessing formal resources, they can still have strong informal connections within their networks. Unfortunately, there may be limited connections to external networks with greater levels of resources—money for lending and professionals for legal, medical or housing services, etc.

Each form of capital is important for communities. But while trust and cohesion, components of bonding capital, are important, and often related to reports of social well-being, there is mixed evidence bonding capital is related to improved economic or health outcomes, so it is sometimes referred to as a ‘getting by’ measure.40 In contrast, the ‘getting ahead’ measures, bridging and linking capital, have stronger evidence of being related to communities that see economic improvements, and health outcomes for members. There are no established measures for bridging or linking capital using public data for the local level (these are usually measured with survey questions), but proxy measures have been cited in the literature.

The Polis Center created an index for bridging and linking capital at the county-level for Indiana and mapped these for Central Indiana. The Bridging Social Capital Index shows that Hamilton and Marion counties have the highest scores, while Morgan County has the lowest. Higher scores imply stronger connections between communities, and an ability to share resources between these communities.41 The Linking Social Capital Index shows that Hamilton County has one of the highest levels in the state, and Marion, Shelby, and Morgan counties have the lowest levels in this region.42 A high score implies strong connections between communities and centers of authority, or access to higher-level resources.


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  42. The Linking Social Capital Index is composed of 4 measures: Voter turnout (2016-2018 average), Census response rates (2010), per capita employees at establishments that provide services to the elderly & disabled (NAICS 624120), and per capita service professionals (legal, healthcare, education, public administration).