A quantitative application of symbolic interactionism to advance directive completion by older adults

Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Welfare

First Advisor's Name

David Cohen

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Mariam Potocky-Tripodi

Third Advisor's Name

Hugh Gladwin

Fourth Advisor's Name

Joan T. Erber

Fifth Advisor's Name

Marian Dumaine

Date of Defense



This study examined contextual and situational influences on older adults’ decision to complete advance directives by means of a conceptual framework derived from symbolic interactionist theory and a cross-sectional, correlational research design. It was hypothesized that completion of advance directives among older adults would be associated with visiting or participating in the care of a terminally ill or permanently incompetent individual sustained by technology. Using a 53-item questionnaire, computer assisted telephone interviews (CATI) were conducted with 398 community dwelling adults between September and October 2003. Respondents were contacted using random-select dialing from a listed sample of 99% of household telephone numbers in one South Florida census tract. Over 90% of households in this tract include an individual age 65 or older.

The results revealed that contrary to most reports in the literature a substantial proportion of older adults (82%) had completed advance directives and that the link between older adults and document completion was mainly through attorneys and not mandated agents, health care professionals. Further, more than one third of older adults reported that religion/spirituality was not an important part of their life, suggesting that the recommended practice of offering religious/spiritual counseling to all those approaching death be reexamined. The hypothesis was not supported (p > .05) and is explained by the situational emphasis on the variables rather than on structural influences. In logistic regression analysis, only increasing age (p = .001) and higher education (p = < .001) were significant but explained only 10% of the variance in document completion.

Based on the findings, increased interdisciplinary collaboration is suggested with regard to the advance directive agenda. Since attorneys play a key role in document completion, other professions should seek their expertise and collaboration. In addition, the inclusion of a religious/spiritual preference section in all living wills should be considered as an essential part of a holistic and individually appropriate document. Implications for social work education, practice, and advocacy are discussed as well as suggestions for farther research.



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