Health and Social Networks among Older Adults

mschaferSocial networks have a powerful impact on well-being — an impact that only increases with age. Changes in health status in old age, however, can limit older adults’ ability to maintain a broad and supportive pool of social resources.

Professor Markus Schafer’s new research program, recently funded by the Province of Ontario’s Early Research Award program, seeks to understand how various aspects of older adults’ social networks shape their health and how different facets of physical and mental health shape different properties of their social networks. Though global in scope, the project also gives special attention to how social networks can help older adults in Toronto retain a high quality of life.

Professor Schafer came to the University of Toronto in 2011 and has used the time since then to establish himself as an expert in social networks, health and the life course. The Early Researcher Award provides Schafer with funding to support his team of graduate students as he and they seek to analyze the complicated ways in which social and physical contexts interact with both health and social connectedness.

Schafer and his students are tackling the question with a two-pronged strategy. First, they are conducting analyses on data from a number of excellent North American surveys that span many years and countries. These data will show them how networks and health interact with contexts over time in a wide variety of contexts.

To understand the processes in more local, fine-grained detail, the team will also select 9-12 neighbourhoods in the city of Toronto where they will find seniors and conduct interviews with them. These interviews will probe deeper into the experiences and personal understandings of health, social networks and contextual factors than can be done through a study of large-scale survey data.