Social work professors' research addresses loneliness among older adults


Rilee Robinson

Robin Bonifas and David Hodge, faculty members in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, believe their research involving senior residents of downtown Phoenix can help effectively address loneliness among other older adults.

The pair presented their findings on loneliness in low income housing at a conference sponsored by the East Africa Centre for Research and Innovation in Social Work held in Kigali, Rwanda in March. The conference focused on professional social work and sustainable development in Africa and was attended by researchers and professionals from around the globe.

Bonifas and Hodge will be applying for separate Fulbright Scholar grants to continue independent research projects and lend their expertise abroad. The conference allowed them to meet representatives of universities that may be interested in working with them.

Bonifas focuses her research on social relationships among older people with chronic illness and disability while Hodge specializes in spirituality, religion and culture. Their presentation titled “Predictors of Loneliness among Older Residents of Low-Incoming Housing" was informed by research conducted at ASU’s Collaboratory on Central at the Westward Ho building in downtown Phoenix. The former iconic hotel was turned into subsidized residential housing for seniors and people with disabilities.

“One of the things that struck me was the importance of spirituality to many people at the conference,” said Hodge. “This observation served to highlight the importance of ensuring that spirituality is not overlooked in social work practice here in America.

“The U.S., along with the rest of the West, is far more secular than many parts of the world. As a result, social workers in the West often fail to explore this area of potential client strength.”

Bonifas and Hodge looked into risk and protective factors for loneliness among Westward Ho tenants, learning that individuals who endorse spirituality as meaningful in their lives also tend to report feeling less lonely.

“We need to continue to research and share the factors that are related with loneliness. We have social work interns at the collaboratory and we need to make sure they know how prevalent loneliness is and ways they can work to address it. Our findings suggest that building on spiritual strengths is one approach” said Bonifas.

While in Kigali, Bonifas and Hodge participated in an organized tour of a local neighborhood given by a women's empowerment center that addresses gender-based violence, inequality and discrimination. The tour included a cooking demonstration and lunch. Proceeds from the tour help pay for the center’s work in the surrounding community.

“The Nyamirambo Women's Centre made income from the tour, prep and the meal, a truly awesome example of a unique social work driven experience that we got to be a part of,” Bonifas said.

While Bonifas and Hodge greatly benefited from their time in Rwanda, both are looking toward the future hoping to begin their Fulbright research next fall. Fulbright grants offer American scholars the chance to research and teach in more than 160 countries, awarding about 8,000 grants annually. The Fulbright program, in addition to offering faculty grants, also offers grants for students as part of the student Fulbright program.