Given increases in longevity, today's older adults face the possibility of acquiring and maintaining relationships far longer than during any other time in modern history. For instance, nearly 1 in 10 adults over the age of 65 has a child who is also within the older adult age range. Nurturing long‐term family relationships can be both rewarding and challenging. While middle and older adults may enjoy the peaceful relationships that develop over the decades in place of sibling rivalry, younger adults may feel the strain of trying to care for their aging and ailing parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Even so, most young people report that they have satisfying relationships with their older family members.
Marriage and family
Older adult marriages and families are sometimes referred to as retirement marriages or retirement families. In such families, the following demographics are typical: The average age of the wife is 68, and the husband, 71; they have been married for over 40 years and report high levels of marital satisfaction; they have three grown children, the oldest being about 40; and 20 percent of the husbands and 4 percent of the wives continue to work, even though they consider themselves retired. For these families, the typical household finances are less than in earlier stages of the life span.
By far the most devastating event in older adult marriages is widowhood, or the disruption of marriage due to death of the spouse. Nearly 3 percent of men (widowers) and 12 percent of women (widows) in the United States are widowed. In the 75 and older age group, approximately 25 percent of men and 66 percent of women are widowed.
One common complaint of widows and widowers is the difficulty they experience finding a new spouse or partner. This is especially true of widows, who must contend with the social stigmas of being old and asexual in a youth‐oriented society. Widows tend to outnumber widowers in retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.
Late adulthood and sexuality
Perhaps no other topic lends itself to misconception more than that of sexuality among the elderly. The notion that a dramatic reduction in the frequency of sexual activity occurs after middle age is groundless. The best predictor of future sexual behavior is present and past sexual behavior: The more sexually active a person is and was in earlier years, the more active she or he will likely be in later years.
Setting aside unfounded expectations about sex and the elderly, the main sexual problem that older adults face is finding a fitting partner. This is a special problem for older women, who—with a greater life expectancy than older men—find themselves with few or no options for potential sex partners. Furthermore, contemporary society typically accepts older men marrying younger women, but not the reverse, which leaves older women with one option—celibacy.
Aging rarely means that youthful activities come to a halt, just that they must be approached more creatively. This shift of pace and perspective is true of jogging (where running replaces sprinting) and golfing (where carting replaces walking), as well as of sex (where patience and understanding replace fast and furious lovemaking). In none of these instances does aging have to interfere with enjoying the activity.
Even when misconceptions are challenged, however, society still holds negative ideas about sex in late adulthood. Many people see elderly sex as passionless, sickly, and dull. To help put an end to these attitudes, researcher Edward Brecher recommended that sexually active older adults be more open about their sexuality. In this way, younger members of society can see what joys these later years can hold for loving, healthy adults.
Relationships with adult children
The majority of older Americans—some 80 to 90 percent—have grown children, and enjoy frequent contact with them. Contrary to popular misconceptions, while the elderly enjoy these contacts, they do not want to live with their grown children. Instead, they want to live in their own homes and remain independent for as long as possible. They typically would rather move into a private room in an assisted living facility or group home than move in with their children. At any one time, only about 5 percent of adults over age 65 live in an institution; the other 95 percent either live alone or with a spouse, other relative, or a nonrelative. People over 65 are, however, more likely than any other age group to reside in an institutionalized setting at some point in their later lives. Over 75 percent of institutionalized older adults live within an hour's drive of one of their children.
As for the quality of the relationships between older adults and their grown children, most research suggests that the elderly rate their experiences as positive. This response is most likely to reflect the older adults' good health, and the common interests (for instance, church or hobbies) and similar views (such as politics, religion, child‐rearing) that they share with their children. The elderly do not necessarily rate frequent contacts with their children as positive when these take place as a result of long‐term illness or family problems (such as a daughter's divorce).
One particularly disturbing aspect of older adulthood is the potential for elderly abuse, or the neglect and/or physical and emotional abuse of dependent elderly persons. Neglect may take the form of caregivers withholding food or medications, not changing bed linens, or failing to provide proper hygienic conditions. Physical abuse may include striking, shoving, shaking, punching, or kicking the elderly, while emotional abuse may consist of verbal threats, swearing, and insults. In the United States, an estimated 5 percent of older adults are abused each year.
Elderly abuse can occur in institutions, but it more commonly happens in the homes of the older person's spouse, children, or grandchildren. The typical victim is an older adult who is in poor health and who lives with someone else. In fact, the person who lives alone is at low risk of becoming a victim of this form of abuse. Both victims and abusers require treatment, whether individual, family, or group therapy. The main goal, however, is to ensure the safety of the elderly victim. Many licensed professionals, such as clinical psychologists, are required by law to report known cases of elderly abuse to the authorities.
Relationships with grandchildren
Because people become grandparents at an average age of 52 for men and 50 for women, grandparenting is hardly restricted to older adults. Older adults, however, often have more free time for their grandchildren. Middle adults often have less time because of work and other responsibilties.
Although often idealized, grandparenting is a role that takes on different dimensions with individual situations, and the quality of grandparent‐grandchild relationships varies across families. Generally, the majority of grandparents report having warm and loving relationships with their grandchildren. Besides helping their grandchildren develop an appreciation for the past, positive grandparenting helps older adults avoid isolation and dependence while finding additional meaning and purpose in life. Grandparenting also facilitates personality development in later life by allowing older adults opportunities to reexamine and rework the tasks of earlier psychosocial stages.
Having close friends in later life, like any other period, is consistently associated with happiness and satisfaction. Friends provide support, companionship, and acceptance, conditions that are crucial to most older adults' sense of self‐esteem and self‐worth. Friendships provide opportunities to trust, confide, and share mutually enjoyed activities. They also seem to protect against stress, physical and mental problems, and premature death.
Because older men are more likely to rely on their wives for companionship, older women typically enjoy a wider circle of close friends. Older men, however, develop more other‐gender friendships. On the other hand, when older women can find available men with whom to be friends, they may be hesitant to become too close. These women may worry about what others are thinking, as they do not want to appear improper or forward.