Social Identity – The Key to Good Health?

There is no disputing the facts. Studies suggest that almost one in two residents in long-term care homes suffer from loneliness and depression. In the 1960s, Dr. Peter Townsend conducted an extensive study of care homes and found that loneliness was common and that almost half (44%) of the residents had some form of depression. 50 years later, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (2010) found the same alarming statistic,- and this despite advances in policy, beautiful new buildings, new medications and calendars filled with social programs. These statistics are even more troubling in light of our increasing senior population.

In the current medical model, helping is conceptualized as a one-way street – what we (the experts) can do to and for residents. Research indicates that lack of belonging and contribution leaves residents socially malnourished. That is, when they are not socially connected in a meaningful way and are not giving back, – when they are always at the receiving end of care, they suffer.

Loneliness and depression are linked with heart disease, falls, dementia, suicide, conflict with staff and severe aggressive behavior. This costs the senior living industry and our health care system dearly and without innovative change, things will get worse.

Recently an international group of social scientists assembled in Brisbane to examine social identity and its impact on health at the 3rd International Conference on Social Identity and Health. Kristine Theurer, PhD candidate and founder of Java Group Programs, was invited to present her paper on this topic titled The Need for a Social Revolution in Residential Care. Other presenters included Dr. John Helliwell, Professor Emeritus of Economics, UBC and editor of the UN World Happiness Report, Dr. John Berry, Professor Emeritus Queens University and Higher School of Economics Moscow, Dr. Alex Haslam, Professor University of Queensland among others.


Haslam (2014) describes social identity as a process of how we create a sense of self through membership in social groups that are relevant and meaningful to us. From this we then develop a sense of responsibility and care for the well-being of all the group’s members.

This was a common thread of the presentations at the conference, – that people who are more socially connected and participate in groups that they identify with live longer and experience better mental and physical health. Certainly the premise makes sense and there is considerable evidence to support the theory. It is also known that social relationships play a key role in depression (Cruwys 2014).  Can this then be the solution to the crisis in senior living?

Theurer’s presentation included how programs fostering engagement and peer support provide opportunities for residents to be socially productive and to develop a valued social identity. She makes the case that not only can residents provide psychosocial help for each other, but also by helping others resident’s gain a positive social identity – and that is key to living a healthier, happier life no matter what age or level of  cognitive ability.

Peer support as an approach to health offers opportunities for an increased sense of belonging, developing a valued social identity and a sense of purpose (Finn, Bishop, & Shaprrow 2007). Peer support enables older adults, including those with dementia, to learn new ways of coping through identification with others in a similar position (Keyes et al., 2014). There is an emerging body of research that documents the effectiveness of this type of support in alleviating loneliness and depression, decreasing social isolation and enhancing a sense of belonging .

The researchers assembled in Brisbane were passionate about the importance of social identity and its impact on health and well-being. Dr. Alex Haslam and Dr. Catherine Haslam played a central role in organizing the event and funding was provided by the University of Queensland and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. More research (and funding) is needed to explore and expand the concept of social identity and how it can positively impact society, including the senior living industry.


Canadian Institute for Health Information. (2010). Depression among seniors in residential care. Ottawa, Canada.

Cruwys, T., Haslam, S. A., Dingle, G. A., Jetten, J., Hornsey, M. J., Chong, E. M. D., & P.S.Oei, T. (2014). Feeling connected again: Interventions that increase social identification reduce depression symptoms in community and clinical settings. Journal of Affective Disorders, In press, 139-146. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2014.02.019

Finn, L. D., Bishop, B., & Sparrow, N. H. (2007). Mutual help groups: An important gateway to wellbeing and mental health. Australian Health Review, 31(2), 246-255. doi: 10.1071/AH070246

Haslam, S.A. (2014). Making good theory practical: Five lessons for an applied social identity approach to challenges of organizational, health, and clinical psychology. British Journal of Social Psychology, 53(1), 1–20.

Keyes, S. E., Clarke, C. L., Wilkinson, H., Alexjuk, E. J., Wilcockson, J., Robinson, L., Mima Cattan. (2014). “We’re all thrown in the same boat…”: A qualitative analysis of peer support in dementia care. Dementia, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/1471301214529575

Townsend, P. (1962). The Last Refuge: A Survey of Residential Institutions and Homes for the Aged in England and Wales. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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