How Social Support Can Improve the Health of Older Adults

There is a direct link between social support and the overall health of older adults.

A social support system is a network of people—family, friends, and caretakers—a person can turn to whenever they have a physical or emotional need. Research has shown a direct link between social relationships and many different aspects of health and wellness.

As people grow older, their social support systems often grow smaller, just when they need them most. A lack of social support has been linked to depression, loneliness, and an increased risk of disease. 

Papa is all about social support, and we firmly believe that it doesn’t just improve our members’ social health, but that it has a measurable impact on their mental, emotional, and physical health as well.

Why social support is more important now than ever

We’re living in a paradox of sorts. It’s never been easier to stay connected to other people (virtually, that is), yet somehow people are feeling lonelier and more disconnected than ever before. This is especially true of older adults, many of whom are unable to get out and about like they once did.

From 2020 to 2022, Papa’s researchers noted a 64% increase in individuals who reported severe loneliness during initial assessments. Yes, the pandemic played a role in this increase, but we had been seeing this downhill trend well before 2020.

For older adults, their retirement years can be a time of great upheaval and change. They’re no longer working. Many have lost partners or friends. Financial circumstances have changed. Their health and mobility may be declining. All of these challenges make older adults vulnerable to becoming isolated and lonely. 

Social isolation and loneliness, along with other social drivers of health, impact upward of 80% of health outcomes. In fact, a recent study showed that loneliness increases mortality by 26%—a shocking stat that illustrates the importance of human-to-human connection. The less connection we have to others, the more unhealthy we become.

We believe that connection is everything. Our vision is to create a world where no one has to go it alone, because they’re connected to people who care about them and for them. Papa Pals offer social support and connection that impacts our members in so many ways.

How social support improves mental health

In addition to loneliness, poor social support has been linked to stress and depression. It can even alter brain function and increase the risk of suicide.

It’s not easy to handle stressful situations or problems alone. Just having someone to talk to about your challenges can alleviate stress—even if that person doesn’t have a great solution to offer. 

Social support isn’t a cure for depression, but it can help ease it or even prevent it. Having someone to talk to, to walk with, or to run errands with can be the mental boost someone needs to keep from spiraling into depression. 

Here at Papa, we have hundreds of stories from members whose mental health improved after meeting with their Pal.

How social support improves emotional health

Mental and emotional health are inextricably connected. Simply put, mental health deals with behaviors that relate to the mind or brain, while emotional health deals with the heart. Mental health is the ability to think clearly, make good decisions, and cope with stress. Emotional health is the ability to manage emotions and have positive relationships. 

Social support is all about having a network of family and friends you can turn to when you need help—not just in an emergency, but on a regular basis. Just spending time with people who care about you. These relationships are essential to being emotionally healthy. 

For older adults whose family and friends can’t be there for them as often as needed (for whatever reason), Papa Pals fill a huge emotional need. Pals provide connection, give their members a sense of belonging, and help them feel like they’re part of something larger. For many members, meeting with their Pal is a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning.

How social support improves physical health

When we think of peer pressure, we often think of teens pressuring other teens to smoke or do drugs. But social groups can also have a positive influence on people’s behaviors. Without a support system around you to encourage you to make healthy choices, it can be easy to slip into unhealthy behavior. 

But friends, family, and caregivers (like Papa Pals) can encourage older adults in particular to eat healthy, exercise, quit smoking, etc. All of these things are easier when you have people supporting you and holding you accountable. 

When older adults don’t have social support, these physical health risks increase:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • A weakened immune system

Papa Pals don’t provide medical support, but they help their members with movement, activity, and stimulation—going on walks, running errands, doing chores together around the house. Papa Pals also provide transportation to medical and therapy appointments that contribute to their members’ physical health. It’s easier to get up and move when you have a Pal to do it with you.

 A little social support goes a long way

  • The ability to live a longer and healthier life
  • A boost in mood
  • Provides a sense of purpose
  • Aids in maintaining overall well-being
  • Promotes and provides social interaction 
  • Can improve cognitive decline

At Papa, our vision is for every older adult to have the social support they need in order to live a long, healthy, and happy life.