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Voices from the Field: Ecological Factors that Promote Employment and Health Among Low-Income Older Adults with Implications for Direct Social Work Practice

Abstract

We employed cumulative dis/advantage and ecological theories to identify risk and protective factors at the individual, family, institutional, and societal levels that promote employment and health among low-income older adults. The authors conducted semi-structured interviews with 26 older adults who participated in a federally funded training and employment program for low-income individuals 55+ years of age. Qualitative data were analyzed using thematic analysis. Approximately 60% of participants had experienced a lifetime of disadvantages (e.g. low levels of formal education, poor physical and mental health, enduring poverty, physically demanding jobs). Surprisingly, 40% of respondents had higher levels of education, excellent or good health, consistent lifetime employment, and personal drive to obtain employment, but had experienced a major health, economic, or social shock that resulted in unemployment, poverty and at times, homelessness. Their life stories, as well as the extant literature, enabled us to understand the many risk and protective factors across the ecological framework associated with employment and improved health. A holistic, strengths-based approach, which utilizes the full scope of biopsychosocial and service assessments is required to bolster employment and health of low-income older adults.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Rachel Whetung, MSW/MPH student at New York University, Silver School of Social Work, for her assistance with the literature review. Sources of funding include the Senior Service America, Inc., (PIs: Gonzales and Harootyan), National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities Loan Repayment Program (PI: Gonzales), the Peter T. Paul Career Development Award (PI: Gonzales), and New York University’s Silver School of Social Work Start-up Funds.

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EG and RH were the principal investigators on the original research project. KL, EG, and RH led data collection. KL led secondary data analysis for this study, with EG and RH. EG led the writing of the initial manuscript and revisions, with KL contributing especially to the methods and results section. All authors contributed to this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ernest Gonzales.

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Gonzales, E., Lee, K. & Harootyan, B. Voices from the Field: Ecological Factors that Promote Employment and Health Among Low-Income Older Adults with Implications for Direct Social Work Practice. Clin Soc Work J 48, 211–222 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-019-00719-x

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Keywords

  • Ecological framework
  • Older workers
  • Cumulative dis/advantage
  • Risk and protective factors