Over 80 percent of 40 Columbus-area stylists surveyed said that older clients shared their problems with them.
"Hair stylists are in a great position to notice when their older clients are starting to suffer from depression, dementia, or self-neglect. While not expecting too much beyond the scope of their jobs, we may be able to help stylists direct elderly people in trouble to community services," said Keith Anderson, co-author of the study at Ohio State University.
The study included 40 stylists from the Columbus area who responded to a mail survey and the participants reported that, on average, about one-third of their clients were 60 years old or older.
Anderson said the results suggested that most stylists do develop close long-term relationships with their older clients.
"Their older clients may sit in a chair for an hour or longer while they're having their hair done, and this may happen once or twice a month. So stylists are in a good position to recognize when things change with a client, and when they may need help," he said.
And most often the elderly customers brought up the issues of health and family problems- more than three-quarters of stylists have heard such complaints, the survey revealed.
More than a third of stylists said clients have discussed problems with depression or anxiety, while a large number of stylists said their response to hearing their clients' problems is to offer sympathy and support, and to try to cheer them up.
But fewer than half said they have given advice, and only about one-quarter have tried to get the client to speak to someone who can help them.
However, about two-thirds said they are willing to refer an older client to appropriate services.
But he said that the problem is that more than half - 52 percent said they were not familiar with community services that may be helpful to older adults.
"It seems like a perfect setup - stylists have access to older adults who may need someone to point them to the help they need. But at least this sample of stylists suggests they don't know what services are out there to help these folks," he said.
The researchers asked participants to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest) their ability to recognize symptoms of depression, dementia and neglect in their older clients. In all three cases, stylists rated their ability between 7.6 and 7.8.
Stylists could play an important role by just learning about local community services and offering brochures to older adults that have information on how to access the help they need.
The study has been published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology.