Government Committee Warns of "Social Capital" Gap for Seniors

"I get by with a little help from my friends" was an anthem of the baby boomers. But now that many need more than just a little help, do the song's lyrics still ring true?

Senior woman friends

Experts caution us to keep a close watch on our retirement savings accounts, tweaking our plan as we age so we'll have a comfortable retirement. But in 2019, government economists cautioned that we might be losing sight of another very important account — the "social capital" that we've built up for our senior years.

This warning came from the bipartisan U.S. Joint Economic Committee (JEC), which was formed in 1946 to advise Congress on economic matters such as interest rates, monetary policy and tax guidelines. The JEC has released a number of projections about older Americans, including retirement savings and the future of Social Security. This year, they reported on a different economic challenge, which Harvard University Professor of Public Policy Robert D. Putnam called "an invisible tsunami: aging alone."

Putnam is the author of the well-known book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," which examined the decline of social capital in the U.S. since 1950. At a JEC hearing, Putnam warned, "Although many people are aware that the nation faces caretaking challenges due to the sizable increase of its elderly population, few are aware of how declining social capital may exacerbate these challenges."

What is "social capital"?

Like monetary capital, social capital is our "account" — but in this case, it's not money that we're banking, but goodwill and reciprocity among other people. Putnam cites the traditional examples of barn-raising on the frontier, neighbors keeping an eye on each other's homes, and parents volunteering in their children's schools and scout troops.

Seniors, too, have traditionally relied on the help of others — a ride to church, help with mowing the lawn, and friendly visits. But, says Putnam, "A variety of social indicators suggest a weakening of associational life among Americans. As such, baby boomers and subsequent generations of Americans may enter old age with fewer social ties than did Americans born earlier in the 20th century. That would mean fewer informal caregivers."

What's behind the shortage of social capital faced by people now turning 65?

Comparing the situation of people born in 1931 with those born in 1953, the JEC report says that today, fewer retiring adults …

… are living with a spouse or partner.

… have children (and fewer still have children who live nearby).

… have any nearby relatives.

… have a good friend who lives in their neighborhood.

… have social connections outside the neighborhood.

… regularly attend a faith community.

In total, reckons Putnam, social support in old age may decline by roughly one-third between people born in 1931 and those born in the mid-1950s — even as the latter group lives longer.

The report reminds policymakers of the increased need to plan and budget for the care needs of future seniors. It also serves as a good wake-up call for individuals as they plan for their senior years.

How can we build social capital?

Just as we should start contributing to our retirement account when we're young, building social capital should start before we need to draw from it. We should make it a priority to build ties in the community, whether it is our faith-based organization, clubs, or other formal groups. Retirement or moving to a new location can mean a loss of social context, so we'll need to cultivate a new circle of friends. Some seniors today are forming "intentional communities," where residents join together to provide resources and support for each other. Others find volunteer service a good way to expand their social circle.

Who will care for us?

The JEC report concluded, "Today's prime-age and retiring adults must consider how to balance immediate needs, future plans, and the need for someone to take care of older Americans. Unfortunately, in an age of declining social capital, our collective quiver will be short of arrows as we search for ways to address these questions."

It can seem scary to think that we will be on our own as we grow older — but we can turn fear into action by putting together our own plan for our later years that includes potential resources for any health challenges we face. Some people plan to move to a senior living community or other supportive environment — but most hope to stay home if possible.

Professional care to support you at home

Professional caregiver plays cards with senior client

As your needs change, supplementing the help you get from family and friends will likely be necessary. Professional in-home care is a versatile resource. You might need help with anything from preparing meals to coordinating your various medical appointments. Consider also that in-home care can bolster your social connections! Caregivers can assist with:

Personal care, such as bathing, dressing and shaving. These are tasks that not only keep us healthy, but also give us social confidence. And many seniors with disabilities would much rather have a professional assist with these sensitive tasks.

Transportation. Seniors who no longer drive can quickly become isolated. Being able to get to the doctor's office and pharmacy is so important, but so is getting to our bridge game, Bible study class or our volunteer gig at the local museum.

Household tasks. Few of us want to live in a messy, unhygienic house. In-home caregivers can keep our home clean and tidy, a place in which we are proud to have friends and family visit.

Protecting dignity and self-esteem. The baby boomer generation is known for valuing personal independence. To many, arranging for professional care rather than relying on the kindness of friends feels empowering.

Read more about the Joint Economic Committee report here

As you are thinking about how your home can remain a good fit even as you grow older, check out the "Planning Ahead for Aging in Place" infographic in this issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.  

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.