There’s nothing in the world that feels like
The place that I know where they all know me
 Keith Urban

In his popular country song “Comin’ Home,” Keith Urban may not have realized he was describing social cohesion, a measure of community social support studied recently by University of Minnesota Associate Professor Carrie Henning-Smith. 

Henning-Smith is lead author of “Social Cohesion and Social Engagement Among Older Adults Aging in Place: Rural/Urban Differences.” The policy brief from the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center examines the perspectives of rural and urban residents 65 years or older living in their current home for an average of more than 25 years. Among other results, the study shows that rural adults were significantly more likely to say that they knew their neighbors well, compared to their urban counterparts. 

We asked Henning-Smith to tell us more about her research.

Daily Yonder: What is the difference between social cohesion and social engagement? How are these two concepts correlated or interrelated?

Henning-Smith: Social cohesion is a term we use to refer to a sense of shared community and strong relationships within a group. Social engagement refers to how often, or to what extent, people participate in different social activities. These concepts are related in the sense that a more socially cohesive community will likely be one where people are more engaged in activities with each other. That sense of cohesion will help people feel more comfortable getting involved in activities, and the more involvement there is, the more people can get to know one another and build trust, relationships, and overall cohesion. 

Carrie Henning-Smith (Photo submitted)

Daily Yonder: One might think that rural adults over 65 years of age would be more at risk of isolation and loneliness.  Your research shows that rural older adults were just as likely to help and trust one another and more likely to know others within their community compared with their urban counterparts. Were you surprised by your findings?

Henning-Smith: I wasn’t surprised by these findings, largely because we’ve seen similar findings in other work that we’ve done at the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center on rural social well-being. Too often, I think rural areas are portrayed with a deficit lens, meaning that we focus on what’s not going well or what places don’t have. However, rural areas have incredible assets related to social relationships. For example, in a paper we published in the Journal of Rural Health in 2019, we found that rural older adults have more close family members and more close friends than urban older adults. This current study on social cohesion focused on a sample of older adults who are aging-in-place. (Our sample included older adults who had not moved since they were first surveyed, living in their homes and communities for an average of 27 years.) The fact that rural older adults in this sample had similar — or higher — levels of social cohesion compared to urban older adults aging in place speaks to the strength of rural social relationships and the strong social fabric of rural communities. 

Daily Yonder: Across measures of social engagement, rural older adults were more likely to have volunteered but less likely to have exercised within the past month. What are some of the policy implications of these results for rural communities?

Henning-Smith: These findings highlight some of the infrastructure needs in rural communities. We found that rural older adults are deeply involved in their communities, but that they may face structural barriers to some types of social engagement. For instance, walking can be a great way to socialize while also getting exercise, but walking in places without sidewalks or safe walking paths can be difficult, or even dangerous. Policy interventions to support the social fabric of communities need to include funding for infrastructure, like the built environment (sidewalks, roads, parks, gathering places) and broadband Internet, where many people find social connections these days. 

Daily Yonder: Black rural residents attend religious services more often than white rural residents; however, your research shows other measures may point toward structural racism for non-white, rural populations. Can you explain these findings further in terms of ways to increase social cohesion and reduce barriers to social engagement?

Henning-Smith: Our findings showed differences in social cohesion and social engagement by race among rural residents. First and foremost, this serves as an important reminder that rural people — including older adults — are not monolithic. Further, rural communities are not all equally or equitably resourced. Some have access to more amenities and resources than others, which can perpetuate the centuries-long harms of structural racism. Policy decisions about how to allocate funding and resources to rural communities should take the historical and current impacts of structural racism into account to ensure that all rural residents have access to safe and appealing social opportunities. This includes support for the infrastructure issues I mentioned earlier, as well as support for community gathering places, like libraries, community centers, senior centers, and so on. Importantly, the wishes of rural residents, including older adults who are long-time members of their communities, should be prioritized in deciding how to create and support social opportunities. This may mean that different opportunities are prioritized in different communities, but all with the same goal of increasing social well-being. 

Daily Yonder: What are some of the benefits for rural adults who plan to “age in place,” or remain in their own homes as they grow older?

Henning-Smith: There are enormous benefits to aging in place! The biggest benefit may be that it’s honoring what the majority of older adults want. In some of our research, we’ve shown that rural and urban older adults alike think that remaining in one’s home is the optimal setting, even if someone needs long-term services and supports. Aging in place is also good for the social fabric of a community, especially in rural areas where other housing and long-term care options are often scarcer. Healthy, vibrant communities include people of all ages, and supporting aging in place is one way to ensure that. However, people aging in place sometimes need a little bit of help to make sure that their home and community environment is still a good fit for them. This might mean home modifications, home-delivered meals and chore services, and assistance with transportation. There is some public funding to support those services for older adults who qualify, but those are also examples of ways in which strong social cohesion may matter, as community members look out for and help one another. 

Carrie Henning-Smith, PhD, MPH, MSW, is an associate professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management, University of Minnesota School of Public Health. She also serves as deputy director of the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center and director of graduate studies for the School of Public Health’s Health Equity Minor. She is the current chair of the editorial board of the Journal of Rural Health and is an associate editor at the Journal of Applied Gerontology and the Journal of Rural Mental Health. 

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