According to scholars, Albrecht & Adelman, “Studying the ways human relationships relate to physical and emotional health has real social and theoretical value.” The positive effects of social support have received a great amount of attention and inquiry. Numerous fields have examined how social support benefits one’s health.
“Social support matters: It is the cornerstone for the quality of human life” (Albrecht & Burleson). Researchers from the fields of sociology, psychology, medicine, and communication all have looked at social support and how affects human relationships and individuals’ life experiences. Psychologists view support as a buffer against illness, for example social support decreases levels of stress related to rape victims, thus improving their health. Other disciplines, like sociology, look at the number of ties within one’s social “network.” Sociologists Wellman and Wortley suggest that the “stronger” the tie among friends, the greater emotional stability. However, each field defines social support in various ways.
Antonucci found that older adults benefited from supportive communication in terms of reduced stress, decreased levels of mortality, and improved mental and emotional well-being. A scholarly journal article by Nussbaum, et.al. suggests that friends and neighbors play a significant role in the support system of senior adults. Scholars, Kreps and Massimilla extended research about cancer patients and communication, finding that positive social support improved the patient’s coping behaviors, reduced mental distress, and extended survival time. Wright found that the communication of social support within an on-line community among older adults provided increased emotional and informational support, as well as an increased sense of community among the users. Additionally, Wright discovered the theme of continuum of online social support, where he found participants acting as a “surrogate family.” He also found themes such as, the use of humor, and using network members to vent frustrations. This extended research on social support by looking exclusively at supportive communication via electronic mediums.
Another study by Caplan & Samter assessed younger and older adults’ evaluations of emotional and instrumental support messages and found that older adults had their own criteria for evaluating supportive messages. The older adults were more concerned with getting the tangible support they needed, than with autonomy or emotional support. Thus, suggesting that older adults often prefer informational or instrumental support over emotional support. Yet, they suggest that future research develop more sophisticated ways to measure the evaluation of messages.
Several meta-analyses demonstrate that social support is an important buffer for illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer. According to Krause, there is a significant relationship between social support and mortality in later life. Older adults rooted in active social groups tend to have lower mortality risk than older adults who do not maintain meaningful relationships with others. Supportive communication has not only been shown to improve the outcomes of physical difficulties, but also mental and emotional issues. Depression is the most common mental health problem faced by older adults today (Butler, Lewis & Sunderland).
A large body of health communication literature has established the significant influences of communication interventions on a variety of health behaviors and health outcomes. Kreps and Query report several studies that show the influence of interpersonal, group, and societal communications on health behaviors and outcomes. Greenfield, Kaplan, and Ware also illustrate the positive effects of increased supportive communication on improved health outcomes. Choi found that social support for the elderly tends to slow down further deterioration of health; therefore, showing that a higher level of social support can result in better health outcomes.
Rowe and Kahn (1998) illustrate four ways that social support promotes better health. They suggest, “First, it is possible that support helps one to obtain better or prompter medical care. Second, some kinds of social support may actually come in the form of medical care. Third, social support may increase conformity to group norms that are health promoting, such as participating in walking groups or not smoking. And fourth, supportive behaviors may have biological effects that directly increase one’s resistance to disease.”
Although the link between health and social support continues to evolve, it is apparent that “social support can improve resistance to infection and disease, extend life, enhance psychological adjustment and perceptions of self-efficacy, and reduce mortality” (Albrecht, Burleson, & Goldsmith).
Even though, the positive effects of social support have been well documented over the last 20 years, less research has been conducted to view the specific ways that social support is communicated. As the aging population continues to grow, communication with seniors will become even more significant.