BACKGROUND: Populations of low and middle-income countries are ageing rapidly; there is a need for policies that support an increase in the duration of old age lived in good health. There is growing evidence that social participation protects against morbidity and mortality, but few studies explore patterns of social participation. Analysis of baseline quantitative and qualitative data from a trial of the impact of Elders' Clubs on health and well-being in the hill country of Sri Lanka provided an opportunity to better understand the extent of, and influences on, social participation among elders. METHODS: We analysed data from 1028 baseline survey respondents and from 12 focus group discussions. Participants were consenting elders, aged over 60 years, living in Tamil tea plantation communities or Sinhala villages in 40 randomly selected local government divisions. We assessed participation in organised social activities using self-reported attendance during the previous year. Multivariable regression analyses were used to explore associations with community and individual factors. The quantitative findings were complemented by thematic analysis of focus group discussion transcripts. RESULTS: Social participation in these poor, geographically isolated communities was low: 63% reported ‘no’ or ‘very low’ engagement with organised activities. Plantation community elders reported significantly less participation than village elders. Attendance at religious activities was common and valued. Individual factors with significant positive association with social participation in multivariable analyses were being younger, male, Sinhala, married, employed, and satisfied with one’s health. Domestic work and cultural constraints often prevented older women from attending organised activities. CONCLUSIONS: Elders likely to benefit most from greater social contact are those most likely to face barriers, including older women, the oldest old, those living alone and those in poor health. Understanding these barriers can inform strategies to overcome them. This might include opportunities for both informal and formal social contact close to elders' homes, consulting elders, providing childcare, improving physical access, advocating with elders' families and religious leaders, and encouraging mutual support and inter-generational activities. Influences on social participation are interrelated and vary with the history, culture and community environment. Further study is required in other low and middle-income country contexts.
Link to publisher’s web site
We are grateful to The Fred Hollows Foundation for funding support. The authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution to this work of the Victorian Operational
Infrastructure Support Program received by the Burnet Institute.