Abstract: Discrimination and Social Isolation Among African Americans across the Life Course (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Discrimination and Social Isolation Among African Americans across the Life Course

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Ann Nguyen, PhD, Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University, OH
Harry Taylor, Postdoctoral Scholar, Duke University, NC
Background and Purpose: Social isolation is associated with a wide range of mental and physical health problems, including depression, psychological distress, cognitive decline, and early mortality. Given this, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has declared the Eradication of Social Isolation as one of 12 Grand Challenges in Social Work. However, little is known about the risk factors for social isolation specifically among African Americans. This study examined 1) the associations between discrimination and objective and subjective social isolation and 2) how these associations vary by age in a nationally representative sample of African American adults.

Methods: Data for this study was drawn from the National Survey of American Life, and the analytic sample included 3,570 African Americans age 18 and older. Objective social isolation (i.e., tangible and quantifiable lack of connections with other people), subjective social isolation (i.e., perceived lack of closeness between individuals and members of their social network), and everyday discrimination were assessed. Multinomial logistic regression analyses were conducted.

Results: Discrimination was positively associated with being subjectively isolated from friends only and family only. That is, respondents who reported more frequent experiences of discrimination were more likely to be subjectively isolated from friends only or family only than to not be subjectively isolated from either group. Discrimination did not predict objective isolation. A significant interaction revealed that the association between discrimination and subjective isolation from friends varied by age. The effects of discrimination on subjective isolation from friends increased with age, with older adults being most vulnerable to the effects of discrimination.

Conclusions and Implications: This study contributes to the limited literature on the role of discrimination in social isolation. While research on social isolation tends to focus on the consequences of isolation, fewer studies have investigated the predictors of social isolation. Discrimination is pervasive in the lives of people of color in the U.S. These findings argue for a more nuanced and systematic investigation of the detrimental effects of discrimination on older African Americans’ social relationships, especially perceptions of their relationships. Continuing efforts to target social isolation interventions toward specific client groups may be of particular relevance and benefit for social work interventions involving African American clients, especially elderly African American clients.