Of the literature relevant to this topic of social support, seven systematic reviews were retrieved, although most were of low quality, [1-4] and/or had limited reference to older adults in a palliative care setting, with the exception of two reviews. [5,6] One set of guidelines from the UK was included in the review;  this was of high quality and applicability to an Australian setting, and although not palliative-care-specific, end of life was referred to throughout. The only palliative-care-specific guidelines retrieved were outside of the scope of this synthesis (published before 2011)  and have only been briefly commented on where other documents have not contributed sufficient review of a critical theme.
General quality and applicability of the evidence was low. [1-3] With the exception of three reviews of high,  adequate  and low quality,  all other studies lacked a wholly palliative care focus and quality scoring suffered due to poor reporting on the study methodology or synthesis of the results. Despite this, all reviews with some relevance to the topic were included to inform the reader on what research has been conducted, what we believe to be true from the collated studies and where the gaps in research exist.
Overall there is a lack of quality evidence and studies addressing the social support and evaluating relevant interventions and raises a need for further research, particularly in the evaluation and provision of social support to CALD groups and older adults receiving palliative care.
A number of themes emerged from the evidence with overlap between the systematic reviews and guidelines pertaining to social support of older adults receiving palliative care. A systematic review by Bradley et al.  identified 12 articles pertaining to the psychosocial experiences of palliative care recipients attending a specialist day care program. The paper identifies the difficulty in defining ‘psychosocial’ but suggests it likely includes the three domains: psychological, spiritual and social, with support of each of these needed as part of a holistic palliative care plan. 
In their thematic analysis, Bradley et al.  identify six themes deemed important by individuals receiving support within a day care setting:
- person-centred care [5,7]
- social support [4-7]
- change of scenery [5,7]
- isolation [2,5,7]
- communication [1-3,5,7]
- activities [1,2,5-7].
Each theme had a widely accepted meaning in terms of how quality of life was impacted and is mirrored in several other reviews included as part of this synthesis.
Person-centred care was a recurrent theme in the systematic review by Bradley et al.;  with attendees at the day care program feeling welcomed and safe, knowing that medical professionals were on hand should they be required. For many, attending activities away from the home and with likeminded people allowed care recipients to feel ‘normal’ and increased feelings of self-worth.  NICE guidelines also referred to the importance of individualisation of support and how well community programs may be suited to their needs. 
‘Meeting people’ was described as one of the most important aspects of attending a palliative day care program, allowing older adults to feel they could cope with their problems and have some control and independence again. The program created a sense of community and helped normalise experiences for participants.  In the systematic review by Black,  a common theme was the importance of sense of worth and social standing during end of life and the importance of feeling empowered, which can often be compromised by the symptoms of a terminal illness. However, the review by Sallnow et al.  recognised that while having a community engaged in end of life support is desirable, this also requires some education and support of volunteers in their care of others.
Change of Scenery
In addition to feeling safe and welcomed, palliative care recipients were receptive to a change of scene and the feeling of being ‘bound’ within their usual place of care and their role of ‘sick person’.  NICE guidelines recognise the importance of having a nominated person to help coordinate access to respite programs or activities within the community; such as specialised transport or equipment which might be difficult to source as an informal caregiver. 
Much like the theme of change in scenery, the day care program evaluation in Bradley et al.  found that attending activities away from the home was a highlight and offered a different outlook and a feeling of being ‘free’. In an environment where all attendees were of similar experience, care recipients felt more ‘understood’ and when potentially distanced from loved ones and family, were more emotionally supported by these likeminded people and staff. [5,7]
Where social support is being sought in a residential aged care home environment, NICE guidelines recommend looking at how the immediate environment supports social interaction, peer support and activities, to reduce feeling of isolation.  They recommend strategies to make social connections with other older adults easier by ensuring people can hear conversations which may include use of technology such as IT platforms or hearing loops. In addition, they support the use of befriending schemes for those people without relatives to visit and intergenerational projects. 
‘a quiet time to chat’ was rated highly in the evaluation of a palliative day care program , particularly with others that care recipients felt they could be open and talk freely with again reinforcing a feeling of normality. In situations where older adults were not able to access health professionals or attend support groups in person, studies evaluated by Atherholt et al.  found that computer based technologies were a useful way of delivering psychosocial care. [1,2] In particular social networking sites or personal blogs were useful in fostering broader social networks and improving self-esteem; [2,3] however Lewis et al.  caution of how technology and support groups or programs can also be alienating for CALD groups, or older adults, who may not have the language or technical skills to participate and therefore feel more isolated.
Were rated as less important than some other attributes of a day care program for palliative care recipients, but diversional activities were valued by some as a social outlet.  Activities were more likely to offer a sense of pride and increase self-esteem and self-worth,  particularly when the products were able to be sold to raise money or gifted to friends or family,  and could be likened to the sense of worth or purpose of being able to contribute to family life.  Similarly, value was put on the ability to attend trips or exercise activities, although of those studies included in the review by Bradley et al.,  craft activities were preferred over keep fit classes and social outings.
Although not highlighted in the review by Bradley et al.,  another theme of spirituality was raised in the NICE guidelines  and American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine Clinical Practice guidelines;  and recognises the need to even those individuals not identifying as religious may be spiritual and therefore require support. Although the American guidelines fall outside of the scope of this evidence synthesis (published before year, 2011) no other more recent documents included in this topic review have addressed spiritual needs.
Having religious or spiritual beliefs (that do not necessarily need to be of a particular religion) can be associated with perceived greater social support. The National Consensus Project Clinical Practice Guidelines (3rd edition) suggest that spirituality could be defined as ‘the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature and/or to the significant or sacred’. They place emphasis on the importance of all team care members to recognise spiritual distress and attend to those within their scope of practice. This could extend to referral to a community agency, chaplain or a team member with the appropriate skills  or even just facilitating attendance to church or spiritual/religious support groups within the community.
The section on Spiritual Care
may be of interest.
Wellbeing and social support for the palliative care recipient can be optimised by nominating a coordinator with whom, the older adult and their family can be linked in with local support services or groups. Where isolation is likely to be an issue, the use of technology and facilitating day visits to respite or organised activities can be particularly useful in improving social support and individual self-esteem as well as health outcomes. It is important to recognise that minority groups such as older adults and particularly those identifying as culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD), may have more difficulty linking in with mainstream services and may need additional support strategies to promote community engagement and to feel socially supported. A health model that integrates community with tertiary care in palliative care is desirable to enhance the social support available to the growing number of palliative care recipients as well as their informal carers.
Research is needed to address the following questions:
Page updated 24 May 2017
- What is the effect of changing bereavement practices in residential aged care?
- How does the aged care workforce adapt practice and provide social support with the diversity of residents in aged care facilities – older people with comorbidities, younger people with long-term disability, younger people with dementia?
- What are impacts in rural aged care where the community is smaller and everyone is connected or related? How do people in aged care in these areas look after themselves whilst supporting others in a close community?
- What are the particular needs for social support for LBGTI communities?