The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Informal Support Among Neighbors in Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities in New York

Friday, January 17, 2014: 9:00 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 103A Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Emily Greenfield, PhD, Assistant Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, NJ
James Fedor, PhD Candidate, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Background: There is growing enthusiasm for community-level interventions in aging, particularly those that aim to facilitate supportive relationships among neighbors to promote optimal outcomes in later life. Despite this emphasis among practice leaders, there has been minimal empirical research on the nature and consequences of neighbor relationships in later life. This study aimed to address this gap by exploring the experiences of residents in Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) Programs—a community intervention that aims, in part, to strengthen informal sources of support to enhance aging in place. Guided by prior research on the importance of non-kin, informal relationships in later life, we aimed to (a) describe the various types of informal support exchanged among neighbors, and (b) identify ways in which support among neighbors potentially influences older adults’ perceived ability to remain in their own homes and communities

Methods: We used a grounded theory approach to explore help giving and receiving among neighbors across six NORC programs in the New York City area.  Sampling was purposive, and program leaders identified residents with high, moderate, and low levels of involvement in their NORC program for inclusion in the study. Qualitative, in-depth interviews were individually conducted with approximately 40 respondents, and all interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. Open-ended questions addressed ways in which older adults helped their neighbors, received help from neighbors, and the perceived impact that those relationships had on their lives. Data were analyzed inductively and at iteratively higher levels of abstraction, with the research team applying and discussing codes as they emerged. 

Findings: Thematic analysis indicated over 32 distinct types of informal support exchanged among neighbors. These types can be classified along two dimensions: (a) direct versus indirect (e.g., giving somebody a ride versus helping them to find a reliable transportation service), and (b) instrumental versus socio-emotional (e.g., help with home repairs versus providing companionship). Very few participants explicitly cited relationships with neighbors as important for their ability to age in place; however, relationships with neighbors were discussed as influencing their health and well-being in less direct ways, such as complementing the support provided by families and formal helping professionals.

Conclusions and Implications: By classifying various types of support exchanged among neighbors, results can help to inform efforts to measure how formal community interventions, such as NORC programs, are successful at enhancing supportive exchanges among neighbors. Also, results indicate the need to conceptualize neighbors as part of a larger web of supports that can promote aging in place. This finding suggests the importance of embedding neighbor-helping-neighbor programs within community interventions that incorporate other elements, such as supporting family caregivers and enhancing access to formal helping professionals.