Most of us know intuitively that relationships are important and contribute to our well being. We think about our own need to share joys and sorrows with someone that understnds and cares. If we have the need for someone to help us with a task it is nice to know that we have someone to count on. This desire to be in relationship with others is different for each of us as one person may be very outgoing and another less so. It is not the number of family or friends but the quality of relationships that sustains us. As we go through adult life differently, we move in and out of circles of family and friends. In the later stages of life we face the loss of some of these, but we do not lose the desire or the need for them.
There is a myth that most older adults are isolated and alone. There are such older adults; however they are by no means the majority. To understand this we need to differentiate between two different types of loneliness:
In the United States, the loneliest people are adolescents and young adults. Loneliness actually declines with age--at least until people are well into the later stages of old age, when it may begin to increase. Although this association between youth and loneliness goes against our stereotype of the elderly lonely, it is not really so surprising when we think about it. Young people face the enormously difficult task of defining their own identity as individuals. Without a solid sense of self, it is all to easy to feel unappreciated and unloved by others. Moreover, young people are constantly having to develop new relationships as they go through schools and into employment settings--and each new social situation creates the possibility of feeling lonely. Finally, it may be that younger people have greater expectations about their relationships than do older people, who have learned to live with less than perfect understanding and compatibility.
Loneliness can be transformed into a constructive experience. One such transformation involves turning loneliness into solitude by using alone time to engage in pleasurable behaviors. It is also possible that learning to be alone with oneself can contribute to self-knowledge, which may strengthen our capacity for establishing intimate relationships with others. It is suggested that healthy personal growth consists of establishing a balance between satisfying relationships with others and a secure base of satisfaction within ourselves.
The majority of older adults have strong family networks and support. In the U.S., among people aged 60 and over:
Healthy People 2000, a report by the Department of Health and Human Services, states that social isolation is a major risk factor for functional difficulties in older persons. Some research has indicated that close parent-child relations reduced the mortality rate of recently widowed older persons. Size and availability of family support networks are the two most important factors in deferring or preventing the institutionalization of elderly persons.
Loss of important relationships
can lead to feelings of emptiness and depression. "Persons involved with
a positive relationship tend to be less affected by everyday problems and
to have a greater sense of control and independence. Those without relationships
often become isolated, ignored, and depressed. Those caught in poor relationships
tend to develop and maintain negative perceptions of self, find life less
satisfying and often lack the motivation to change."
Studies of relational benefits have focused on three types for social support:
The majority of social support is informal support provided by family, friends, and neighbors. One relationship often overlooked yet very important is that of brothers and sisters. Sibling relationships are often an important element of companionship as one grows older. There is generally more closeness among older siblings than younger siblings. The shared common values and perceptions give an element of closeness and support. Studies have found that older people with living siblings, especially sisters, have:
Nearly 60 percent of those aged 65 - 74 are married and live with a spouse in an independent household. Forty-three percent of women aged 65 and older are married and living with a spouse as compared to 75 percent men. Women represent 80 percent of the older adults living alone.
Couples throughout marriage must learn to adapt to changing expectations. As a couple ages the tension between autonomy and equitable exchange may be heightened. One milestone that may tax the couple is retirement. Negotiating new roles, expectations, and time spent together, are all tasks to be dealt with. However, once negotiated, increased time together and with friends can increase marital satisfaction. Marital satisfaction is highest among those recently married, lower during the childrearing years, and higher in the later stages. The strongest predictor of marital satisfaction in later life is the couple's satisfaction in the early stages of marriage. Happy marriages have more equality and joint decision making -- including sharing of household duties.
The work of Hansson and Carpenter (1994) has contributed a great deal to understanding the importance of relational competence. They identify four functions for relational competence:
Researchers have uncovered three broad themes that underlie adult friendships. The most frequently mentioned is the affective or emotional basis of friendship. This includes self-disclosure and sociability and compatibility: Our friends keep us entertained and are sources of amusement, fun and recreation. Most older adults, even those who live alone, have some friends and acquaintances to whom they can turn in emergencies. Although contact with friends tends to decline with age, the majority of older adults have at least one close friend with whom they are in frequent contact. In fact, older persons who have kin may turn more to friends and neighbors for immediate assistance than to family, in part because friendship involves more voluntary and reciprocal exchanges between equals, consistent with social exchange theory. To the extent that friendships can satisfy social and material needs, and allow for reciprocity in relationships, they can compensate for the absence of a partner and can help ease a sense of loneliness.
Women tend to have formed more friendships--and closer friendships--throughout life. For many men their wives are their only confidant, a circumstance that may make widowhood devastating for them. In contrast, women tend to satisfy their needs for intimacy throughout their lives by establishing close friendships with other women and therefore are less dependent emotionally on the marital relationship. When faced with widowhood, divorce or separation, they can turn to these friends. Accordingly, widowed older women tend to receive more help and emotional support from friends than married older women. The resilience of some older women, in fact, may be rooted in their ability to form close reciprocal friendships .
For women especially, the status of grandparenthood can engage 50 percent of their lives. Of the 80 percent of older people with children, 94 percent are grandparents and nearly 50 percent are great-grandparents. Another way of grasping the significance of this change is that, over 66 percent of adult children have begun life with all grandparents living, and more than 75 percent have at least one grandparent alive when they reach the age of 30 (Hooyman et al.)
Grandparent-grandchild relationships change over time; contact and expectation of closeness decline as grandchildren become older. However, some young adult grandchildren express more affection toward their grandparents as they get older. The grandparent-grandchild bond is initially mediated by parents, but this bond becomes more direct as time passes, and can be substantially altered by events such as divorce. The potential for young adult children and their grandparents benefits not only the individuals involved, but also the total kinship system.
There is a wide diversity among grandparents, who vary in age from late thirties to over 100 years, with grandchildren ranging from newborns to retirees. Accordingly, there are multiple grandparent roles and meanings. A systems perspective takes account of the reciprocal and continually changing relationships that exist across generations, and recognizes that although nuclear families are becoming smaller, more members of more generations who share a greater part of each other's life spans are alive at one time.
Being a great-grandparent can provide a sense of personal and family renewal. Their grandchildren have produced new life, renewing their own excitement for life and reaffirming the continuance of their lineage. Seeing their families stretch across four generations may also provide psychological support through feelings of symbolic immortality that help them face death. That is, they know that their families will live many years beyond their own lifetime. Great-grandchildren provide diversion in great-grandparents' lives. There are now new things to do, places to go, and new people to share them with. Becoming a great-grandparent is a mile-stone, a mark of longevity. The sense that one has lived long enough to see the fourth generation is perceived very positively.
We cannot in this discussion forget "man's best friend." Having a pet to feed, groom or walk can provide structure and a sense of purpose to the day, and caring for it can provide an anchor for those whose lives have undergone major change or loss. A pet may even serve as a family substitute, especially for nursing home residents. Pet owners tend to score higher on measures of happiness, self-confidence, self-care, alertness, responsiveness and dependability than non-pet owners .The recognition that animals fulfill many human needs has led to an increase in pet-facilitated programs for older people living in long-term care facilities, as well as in loan-a-pet programs for those individuals in their own homes.
Hansson, R.O. and Carpenter, B. N. (1994). Relationships in Old Age: coping with the challenge of transition. Guilford Press, New York, NY.
Hooyman, N.A. and Kiyak, H. A., (2002). Social Gerontology, Allyn & Bacon, Boston.
Weiss, R. S. (1974). The provisions of social relationships. In Z. Rubin (Ed.), Doing unto others (pp.17-26. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
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