Aging and Its Effects on Social Relationships

Abstract

Social relationships are beneficial to the elderly. People who enjoy good social relations are bound to age gracefully and live a fulfilling life. Studies show that good social ties can go a long way in reducing the mortality rate among the elderly. As people age, their social network tends to shrink, which significantly impacts their health. This research analyzes the perspectives that are used to define aging and its effects on social relationships. While social relationships may have some downsides, their benefits far outweigh them. The paper has further gone ahead to suggest policy implications that emanate from the literature reviewed herein.

Introduction

There is a link between aging and social relationships. The connection between aging and close relationships is an area that has elicited a lot of interest lately. By studying the subject matter, one is bound to produce a positive impact on the general lifespan of individuals. Family, as well as friendship bonds, is viewed as an essential life component by the aging members of the society. Warm and close relationships have proven to have a positive impact on the holistic health of society (Joung & Miller, 2007).

Aging and Close Relationships

The concept of communication and relationship-building defines not only the positive development of an individual but also their life, in general. Several multi-discipline studies, with their background ranging from psychological to sociological and anthropological ones, have looked into the issue of aging and close relationships. For instance, developmental psychologists have explored the relationships that exist between parents and their children extensively (Joung & Miller, 2007). The studies show that the relationship between parents and children can be viewed as the earliest and at the same time the strongest type of close connections formed between relatives and family members (Binstock et al., 2011). The relationships that develop between a child and parent at that tender age tend to continue being experienced even as the parents’ age, though under a different magnitude.

Most researchers have always linked social relationships with quality of life. It has been noted that psychological state of an individual has a significant impact on their mental health. Further, studies have shown that warm relationships in life do prepare an individual to withstand most of the life’s challenges which tend to frequent as one ages. In fact, early research discovered that most of the children who were deprived of social relationships at tender ages were mostly likely to have ill health that could lead to mortality in some cases. It has been documented that sound relationships can heal people.

This paper tries to prove that social relationships and aging have a strong interconnection. The paper looks into what happens to social relationships when people age. It also looks at aging and conflict. In other words, “Does aging reduce or increase conflict?” Additionally, the research investigates what promotes healthy and happy aging. It has been known that most aging couples get devastated when a spouse dies.

There has been debate over what constitutes successful aging. While some people take it to mean healthy physical as well as cognitive functions, another view suggests that successful aging entails the ability to recover from the functional losses. All in all, most studies still show positive social engagement as the greatest determinant of successful aging.

Negative Effects

It should be borne in mind, though, that the effects of social interactions on cognitive aging have not yet been studied well enough. Although the overall concept of communication and maintaining connections with the members of the community can be deemed as positive when connecting it to the process of aging, there is also substantial evidence that the subject matter may galvanize the aging process significantly. For instance, a recent study carried out by Liao et al. (2014) points to the possibility that one’s cognitive abilities may be impaired by the close relationships that are not controlled by nurses.

Particularly, the authors of the study state quite explicitly that there is a possibility of the communication process between aging people and their family members to go not as smoothly as expected. Unless instructed carefully by nursing experts, younger family members, e.g., children, grandchildren, etc., may unintentionally create the situations that lead to conflicts between them and their aging relatives. The effects of the conflicts are quite drastic; as the research carried out by Liao et al. (2014) has shown, the negative aspects of close relationships are likely to inhibit several aspects of the aging people’s cognitive functions, thus, leading to a rapid development of health issues. The positive effects of social interactions, in general, and the communication with family members, in particular, on the aging people’s cognitive functions, in their turn, were not identified in the course of research (Liao et al., 2014).

Therefore, it is essential that the relationships between the aging people and their family members should be supported by a psychologist. Unless the relatives are guided by a psychologist, their efforts to improve the patient’s well-being and help them retain the connections with the community are likely to fail miserably. It is crucial that the patient should be supported as well throughout the process of conversing with the community members. As a result, a significant improvement in the target audience’s well-being, particularly, the reduction in the possibility of developing age-associated mental health issues, can be expected.

Social Relationships in Old Age

Research shows that the extent to which one interacts in the environment of a social network reduces significantly as one gets older. The smaller networks which elderly members of the family comprise become less contacted. The identified phenomenon occurs due to the fact that, in a family, the elderly are typically outnumbered significantly by younger people. As a result, the network in which the former interact has to expand to include younger participants, yet there are little to no points of contact between the representatives of different generations by that time (Joung & Miller, 2007).

Social networks fall under several categories. There are those networks which are not family restricted. The members of these networks are characterized by very low chances of ever getting married. There are the networks whose members have very few or even no children. Lack of friends characterizes others. In this case, the people involved do not have any contact with friends. There is also the diverse typology. In this category, the participants maintain a relatively good contact with friends and family. It has been found that older people in this diverse typology tend to be better adjusted and follow the standards of psychological well-being closer when compared with those who are in the family-based typology. The size of the network matters a lot, as well. The bigger the network is, the higher the level of psychological health remains (Joung & Miller, 2007).

Surprisingly, it has been found that the number of friends decreases with age. Partially, the death of close friends and the difficulties associated with forming new friendships from scratch can be viewed as the reason for the specified phenomenon to occur. Furthermore, several models have been designed to demonstrate the connection between the variables in question. The first theory stresses social disengagement and suggests that old people tend to withdraw from their usual networks by reducing the number of friends. This could be due to the deteriorating health or even loss of roles in society as a result of retiring (Joung & Miller, 2007).

The socio-emotional selectivity theory has an entirely different explanation as to why the networks in which older people communicate tend to shrink. According to the theory, the phenomenon occurs because as people grow older, they become more selective of the friends that they want to keep. Their intention is only to keep high-quality friendships. According to the theory, when people age, there is a need for salient emotional exchanges. Also, keeping relationships for informational purposes only ceases to make sense as people age.

According to the social convoy model, there are ever-changing patterns in people’s lives as they age. Things like culture and values start making more sense and these impact both quality and quantity or relationships, thus, implying that the specifics of relationships change at certain stages. People may start choosing quality friendship over the partners that merely keep them company.

Social Support

Support at an old age can come from several sources, which may include the immediate family, e.g., spouse, offspring, friends and even the extended family. Most research carried out has majored on the support given by the spouse. It has been proven that spouses tend to be the ones preferred to provide support at old age. In cases where people in old age cannot get remarried, all the expectations go to their children. They want the children to offer not only instrumental support but also an emotional one. Further research has, however, shown that, though the old people expect such support, it may come with a feeling of resentment and guilt. The type of relationship between the children and their aged parents that implies communicating under the pressure of the social standards and morals can be a source of support as well as a clear source of conflict (Joung & Miller, 2007).

The socio-economic factors also play a prominent role in social relations. Research indicates that people from different economic backgrounds experience support in various ways. People of higher education or income levels may not experience social relations as those of lower levels of education and income. Poverty has been known to put a lot of strain on social relations, which is why most seniors prefer family support as opposed to that one emanating from friends (Joung & Miller, 2007).

Widowhood and Old Age

As stated above, social relations are essential to the well-being of senior citizens because these relationships come with support. This support goes a long way in helping people accept their age and remain social. As the convoy model suggests, marriage, divorce, retirement, and even loss of significant others determine the nature of the network in which elderly people feel comfortable (Hughes & Waite, 2009).

Marriage offers a two-sided support system, one part of it being physical. Either spouse forms a support pillar to the other. So with the loss of the partner or the spouse, the support will have been shattered completely. Seeing that the connection that a married couple creates can hardly be substituted immediately with social interactions with the members of the community, especially given the low level of engagement that elderly people display, the development of mental issues due to loneliness becomes a threat. Research further shows that it is the way a spouse reacts to bereavement that determines their well-being or absence thereof. All the same, bereavement has been found to mark the onset of physical ailments and the development of unhealthy habits like smoking (Hughes & Waite, 2009). Most people are bound to engage in risky behavior as a way of responding to stress emanating from broken social relationships, substance and alcohol abuse being two primary issues (Joung & Miller, 2007).

Although engaging in social interactions actively may have a negative effect on the well-being of aging people, as explained above, social ostracism is also likely to lead to undesirable outcomes (Moody, 2006). For instance, obesity has proven to be a problem for the people that cease to interact with others due to their age. If elderly people break social ties, they may fail to adhere to the social norms which advocate for a healthy lifestyle. It may be very difficult to improve the health status of such people and convince them to abandon their unhealthy habits (Hughes & Waite, 2009).

If social ties are broken, the cost of caring for the unhealthy becomes increasingly high. The challenges that may be exacerbated by this situation may even lead to mortality or compromised health for the person taking that care. Even the recipient of care may, in return, suffer from the poor or strained interaction between themselves and the caregivers (Joung & Miller, 2007).

Critique

According to the disengagement theory, older people tend to abandon most of the roles that they were undertaking as they cease to communicate with the rest of the society. The approach seems to suggest that the older people are supposed to give way to younger people. The elderly are, seemingly, being urged to choose the social roles that are in line with their mental decline. The problem with this claim is that it assumes that the elderly are no longer able to perform their former roles. The study by Hooyman and Kiyak (2011) shows, however, that older people are still capable of playing essential roles in the society. In fact, they have continued to perform their functions better than younger people in fields such as agriculture, medicine, education, etc. What is not being recognized is that the society may experience many problems if all seniors were to disengage from all the roles they have been undertaking. Old people are known to be role models who possess great knowledge, wisdom, and insight necessary for the present generation (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011). Persuading the elderly members of the population to cease their social activities may result in them feeling a burden to the family and the society. They will also shrink their social networks if they are forced to participate in social activities.

Most gerontologists suggest that old people should continue being active. Participating in social events is good for the elderly themselves, as well as the society in which they live. As elderly people continue to play their roles, their self-esteem receives a boost, and their physical health, as well as psychological one, remains vibrant. Unlike the theory suggests, however, not all people can stay socially engaged. There are those who fall sick earlier than others. Also, societies vary regarding the way in which they view the process of aging. For instance, some older adults are barred from staying active due to poverty, gender barriers, as well as social issues. Most of these structural conditions significantly impact these people’s overall health and well-being (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011).

Policy Insights

Social relations and their direct link to health call for a robust public health policy. Though most policies in place touch on social relations, they only dwell on the impact of isolation of the aging population. Studies now show that good social relations serve as preventive measures for many of diseases and disorders to which old people are susceptible. This should also be a concern because most of the populations in the developed world comprise of older adults as fertility rates experience a steady decline (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011).

Marriages that have supportive interaction benefit not only the spouses but also their children. The whole chain of advantages goes up to the national level. It is against this notion that most employers have included paternity leave to allow for working husbands to take care of their wives after giving birth. Though most of these policies have been put in place, the most deserving cases have tended to be ignored, thereby undermining the health of the nation. It is the responsibility of all stakeholders and political leadership to understand all the issues that affect the elderly. The described phenomenon occurs because the life expectancy has increased considerably, and people now live longer. Several theories have been advanced in the area of aging. However, what is worth considering is the practical reality that aging poses. There is a need to understand the needs and challenges of this ever growing segment of the society.

Policy Goals

Policy makers should use the information found in this research to devise the framework for addressing the needs of the aging segment of society. First, the policy goals should target the promotion of desirable features of social relations. They could, for example, encourage supportive ties, as well as healthy lifestyle habits, among the population. People need to be told of how good relationships can save the family, etc. By this, there should be a multi-sector approach that may lead to the aged living happy and fulfilled lives. Also, policies should promote a more active engagement of the elderly people into the community and its events, enhancing their participation.

Conclusion

Studies show that aging has a significant effect on social relationships. When people age, they want to maintain closer ties with family members. The identified effect can be explained by a variety of reasons. Good social relationships have a great impact on the physical health and the emotional well-being of an individual. Most sociologists have clearly elaborated on the evidence which points to the need for good social relations. Aging should be handled carefully since social isolation may lead to a rapid drop in health rates and the development of mental and physical issues.

References

Binstock, R. H.,, George, L. K., Cutler, S. J., Hendricks, J., & Schulz, J. H. (2011). Handbook of aging and the social sciences (6th ed.). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Hooyman, N. R., & Kiyak, H. A. (2011). Social gerontology: A multidisciplinary perspective (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Hughes, M. E., & Waite, L. (2009). Marital biography and health at mid-life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50(3), 344–358.

Joung, H. M., & Miller, N. J. (2007). Examining the effects of fashion activities on life satisfaction of older females: Activity theory revisited. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 35 (4), 338-356.

Liao, J., Head, J., Kumari, M., Stansfeld, S., Kivimaki, M., Singh-Manoux, A., & Brunner, E. J. (2014). Negative aspects of close relationships as risk factors for cognitive aging. American Journal of Epidemiology, 180(11), 1118-1125. Web.

Moody, H.R. (2006). Aging: Concepts and controversies. Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press.