social relationships and aging

Social Relationships Across Adulthood

Humans are social animals. Individuals are embedded into and supported by social relationships across their lives (Antonucci et al., 2014). Social relationships can involve positive experiences, such as support, intimacy, and companionship, which are linked to better mental and physical health (Almeida, 2005; Bolger et al., 1989; Rook & Charles, 2017).  However, social relationships can also have a dark side and may involve conflict, alienation, and support burdens, which are related to poorer health and greater mortality risk (Holt-Lunstad, 2018; Rook & Charles, 2017). In light of this ‘double-edged’ nature of social relationships it becomes important to understand how these factors change with age.

Social Development Across Adulthood

In general, the size of social networks (the number of social contacts people have) shrinks beginning in younger adulthood (in one’s 20s and 30s; Carstensen & Lang, 1999; Wrzus et al., 2013). Although the quantity of social partners decreases with age, the quality of social networks remains stable or even increases with age. The number of very close, meaningful social partners remains stable with age. Moreover, older adults (60+ years old) report more positive emotions with their close partners, greater relationship satisfaction, and more perceived support from their partners compared to younger adults (see review by Luong, Charles, & Fingerman, 2011). Interpersonal tensions (arguments and disagreements) are reported less frequently but when they do occur, older adults are less emotionally reactive to such conflict compared to younger adults (Birditt & Fingerman, 2003; Luong & Charles, 2014). Loneliness is also not necessarily more prevalent in later adulthood, but rather shows peaks at certain phases in adulthood that may be linked to life transitions.

According to socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999), these age-related differences in social relationships may be due to motivations that shift with changing time horizons. When people perceive they have a lot of time left to live, they may focus on longer-term knowledge-attainment goals (e.g., pursuing higher education, focusing on career success) which may put people into stressful social contexts. In contrast, as people age and perceive that they have limited time left to live, they may focus more on emotionally-meaningful short-term goals, such as cultivating positive social relationships. Thus, although some changes in social networks may be uncontrollable (e.g., social partners passing away), other aspects may be due to a more deliberate selection of social partners who contribute to emotionally meaningful relationships for older adults.

Implications for Healthy Aging

Emotionally gratifying relationships and the social and emotional support they provide buffer older adults against the challenges inherent in the aging process, such as negative health changes, changes in cognitive functioning, or possible social losses. However, older adults who do not have good social relationships and are socially isolated have a higher risk of feeling lonely which may put them at higher risk for developing depressive symptoms or other mental health problems, such as anxiety or suicidal ideation (Holt-Lunstad, 2018; Ong et al., 2012). These vulnerabilities for older adults were exacerbated in certain ways during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

What Can we Do to Promote Positive Social Relationships and Healthy Aging?

First, it is important to recognize that it is common for social networks to shrink, even as early as the second decade of life. If you are noticing that you do not have as many friends as you used to, don’t panic. The quality of friendships may be more important than the quantity of friendships. Consider whether your unique social goals are being met: do you have people around to support you when you need help? Do you have the amount of companionship, intimacy, and closeness that you want to have with friends and family?  One study showed that older adults who actually have more conflictual (negative, argumentative) relationships with others actually reported being less unhappy (lower negative affect) in their daily lives when they spent less time with other people (i.e., more time alone; Birditt, Manalel, Sommers, Luong, & Fingerman, 2018). These findings underscore the importance of spending time with people who are meaningful in our lives, rather than simply trying to fill up our time with other people, even if they bring us distress.

If some of your social needs are not being met, consider what those needs are. Are you looking for someone to spend time with you on activities you enjoy (companionship)? Do you need more support with everyday activities (social support)? Would you like to be able to share personal stories and meaningful experiences with others (intimacy)? Each of these social needs are different for everyone, and can be met in different ways. For example, many community resource centers for seniors focus primarily on support for older adults (e.g., A Little Help). If you are looking for people to share activities with (e.g., pickleball, book clubs), there are online networks (e.g., www.meetup.com) that connect people with similar interests. There are also more options for remote forms of contact given the ongoing pandemic. You can also deepen existing relationships through counseling or other resources to help both partners communicate more effectively, share experiences, and trust each other more fully.

References:

Antonucci, T. C., Ajrouch, K. J., & Birditt, K. S. (2014). The convoy model: Explaining social relations from a multidisciplinary perspective. The Gerontologist, 54, 82-92. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnt118

Holt-Lunstad, J. (2018). Why social relationships are important for physical health: A systems approach to understanding and modifying risk and protection. Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 437-458. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011902

Rook, K. S., & Charles, S. T. (2017). Close social ties and health in later life: Strengths and vulnerabilities. American Psychologist, 72, 567-577. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000104

About the Experts:

Gloria Luong

Gloria Luong is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and the director of the Health, Emotion, and Aging Research Team at Colorado State University. Dr. Luong’s research specializes in social and emotional aspects of aging and adult development. She is especially interested in understanding stressor-health links, how emotion regulation and coping capacities may modify these links across the lifespan, and how social interactions and relationships may differentially contribute to enhanced/diminished health and well-being.

Manfred Diehl

Manfred Diehl is a University Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State University. As a life span developmental psychologist, Dr. Diehl studies processes of adult development and aging, with a particular focus on how successful and healthy aging can be achieved. He is the director of the Adult Development and Aging ProjecT (ADAPT) at CSU, a research lab that aims to understand and promote healthy development in early, middle, and late adulthood.

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