When Mark Rosenbaum's father died five years ago, his 68-year-old mother fell into depression and loneliness, lost her appetite and even started to suffer from geriatric anorexia.
Then one day she walked into Kappy's, a local, family-owned diner near her suburban Chicago home. The restaurant's owner took one look at her and sat her next to another widow-a regular customer. Soon, Mrs. Rosenbaum was eating at Kappy's three or four times a week, mostly to spend time with the friends she'd made among the staff and regulars there.
"That diner saved her life," said Rosenbaum, a psychologist and professor of marketing at Northern Illinois University.
The episode piqued Rosenbaum's professional as well as personal interest. In research published in August in the Journal of Service Research (Vol. 9, No. 1, pages 59-72), he examined how restaurants, coffee shops and other businesses sometimes provide social and emotional support to people who might otherwise be lonely. Some sociologists call these spots "third places," because they are the third social space-after home and work-in many people's lives.
In Rosenbaum's study, which he presented at the 2006 APA Annual Convention, the researchers interviewed 83 regular customers at Kappy's. Of the mostly elderly customers-the average age was 64-51 were married, 10 were single, 17 were widowed and five were divorced.
The researchers asked the customers to list the people in their lives from whom they received support, and what types of support they received: social (someone to spend time with), emotional (someone to talk to about personal issues) and instrumental (someone to help with everyday tasks).
They found that the bereaved and divorced customers received nearly 60 percent of their social support from people they had met at the restaurant. People who had experienced a different type of difficulty-chronic illness-received about 40 percent of their social support from the restaurant. Meanwhile, regulars who hadn't experienced any major adverse life events received about 25 percent of their support that way. The same trend held true for both emotional and, to a slightly lesser extent, instrumental support.
The pattern makes sense, Rosenbaum says: "As you lose social support outside the restaurant, you find it inside the restaurant."