Socially active older women more likely to be emotionally abused or mistreated, study reveals

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Usually, science tells us that spending most of our time alone and isolating ourselves isn’t a good idea from either a mental or physical health perspective. Surprisingly, though, a new study finds socially active older adults are more likely to encounter emotional abuse or mistreatment. This is especially true for older women attending lots of organized social events like religious services, volunteer work, or community gatherings.

After analyzing a national dataset, researchers from the University of California-San Francisco report older women who had been broadly engaging in social activities prior to the COVID-19 pandemic had a 76-percent higher chance of experiencing emotional abuse or mistreatment than women who weren’t as socially active.

“Given widespread discussion about the negative effects of social isolation of older adults during the COVID pandemic, we wanted to understand whether older adults’ participation in social activities could affect their risk of abuse or mistreatment,” says senior author Alison J. Huang, MD, an internal medicine specialist and clinical epidemiologist at UCSF, in a university release.

“We expected that older adults who regularly take part in community-based social activities would report lower rates of abuse or mistreatment than older adults who were more socially withdrawn,” she adds. “But we found that the opposite was the case for older women.”

4 in 10 social women facing mistreatment

The team used data originally collected for the 2015-2016 National Social Health and Aging Project. At the time, that initiative aimed to investigate and document older adults’ formal social participation patterns. Examples of such patterns include volunteering around the community, attending religious services or other meetings, or simply getting together with family and friends.

In total, the examined dataset encompassed 2,241 older adults (1,268 women, 973 men). The average age among included women was 75 years-old and the average age among male participants was 76. About half the women and a quarter of men in the study were married or living with a partner. While the majority of both men and women reported at least one chronic health condition, over three-quarters still reported good to excellent physical health. Similarly, nearly all participants reported good to excellent mental health.

Starting from the age of 60, researchers assessed three distinct dimensions of elder abuse: financial, emotional, and physical.

Troublingly, 40 percent of the women and 22 percent of the men reported experiencing at least one type of mistreatment. Older women attending a broad array of organized social activities actually had higher rates of certain kinds of elder abuse or mistreatment than less socially active adults. Conversely, this didn’t hold up among older women doing most of their socializing within more informal settings.

More opportunities for abuse

Study authors can’t definitively explain these findings yet, but say there are a number of possible explanations.

“One explanation is that older women who engage in more community social activities have more opportunities and contact points for experiencing mistreatment,” theorizes second study author Ashwin A. Kotwal, MD, a UCSF geriatrician researcher. “These women may experience abuse from people they encounter outside the home.”

“But another possibility is that older women who are already experiencing abuse may try to get more involved in the community to seek support in coping with abuse,” he adds.

The research team concludes that doctors, family members, and friends alike shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming an older adult isn’t experiencing abuse or mistreatment simply because they keep a fairly busy social schedule.

“Different types of social activities can lead to both positive and negative social interactions for older adults,” comments first study author Emmy Yang, BS, a student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

“Most importantly, our paper shows that clinicians and others shouldn’t assume that older adults who appear actively engaged in the community are not experiencing mistreatment,” she concludes. “Asking about older adults’ social activities could be a window into identifying sources of mistreatment and support.”

The study appears in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.