Relationships in Older Adulthood

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 at least age 65. Nurturing long‐term family relationships can bring both rewards and challenges. Over the decades, sibling rivalry may disappear and give way to peaceful relationships, while younger adults may feel the strain of trying to care for their aging and ailing parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Still, most young people report satisfying relationships with their older family members.

Marriage and family

People sometimes refer to older adult marriages and families as “retirement marriages” or “retirement families.” In such families the following demographics typically hold true:
  • The average age of the wife is 68, and the husband, 71.

  • Their previous marriages had lasted for more than 40 years, and they had high levels of marital satisfaction.

  • They have three grown children, the oldest being about 40.

  • Even though they consider themselves retired, 20 percent of the husbands and 4 percent of the wives continue to work.

The typical household income is less than in earlier stages of the lifespan, often translating into a decrease in standard of living.

Widowhood, or the disruption of marriage due to death of the spouse, presents by far the most devastating event in older adult marriages. 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.

Widows and widowers commonly complain of the difficulty that they experience finding a new spouse or partner. This especially holds true for widows, who must contend with the social stigmas of being “old” and “asexual.” Widows tend to outnumber widowers in retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.

Relationships with adult children

The majority of older Americans—80 to 90 percent—have grown children, and enjoy frequent contact with them. Contrary to popular misconception, although 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. Typically, they 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. More than 75 percent of institutionalized older adults, however, live within an hour's drive of one of their children.

As for the quality of the relationship between older adults and their grown children, most research suggests that the elderly rate their experiences as positive. This particularly holds true when they have good health, enjoy common interests (such as church, holidays, hobbies), and share similar views (on politics, religion, child rearing, and so forth) with their children. The elderly do not necessarily rate as positive frequent contacts with their children when these contacts come from long‐term illness or family problems (a daughter's divorce, for example).

The potential for elderly abuse, or the neglect and/or physical and emotional abuse of dependent elderly persons, creates one very disturbing aspect of older adulthood. Neglect may take the form of withholding food or medications, not changing bed linens, or failing to provide proper hygienic conditions. Physical abuse may occur as striking, shoving, shaking, punching, or kicking the elderly. Emotional abuse may take the form of verbal threats, swearing, and insults. Estimates are that approximately 5 percent of American older adults receive abuse each year.

Elderly abuse can occur in institutions, but more commonly takes place in the homes of the older person's spouse, children, and grandchildren. The typical victim is an older adult who is in poor health and lives with someone else. In fact, the person who lives alone has a 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 ensuring the safety of the elderly victim. The law requires many licensed professionals, such as clinical psychologists, to report known cases of elderly abuse to the authorities.


On average, men become grandfathers at age 52, and women become grandmothers at age 50. Therefore, grandparenting hardly restricts itself to older adults.

Although idealizing grandparenting is easy to do, the quality of grandparent‐grandchild relationships varies across and within families. Generally, the majority of grandparents report having warm and loving relationships with their grandchildren. In addition to 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, as in any other period of life, consistently corresponds with happiness and satisfaction. Friends provide support, companionship, and acceptance, which are crucial to most older adults' sense of self‐esteem. They 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 more likely rely on their wives for companionship, older women typically enjoy a wider circle of close friends. Older men, however, develop more other‐gender friendships, probably because women generally live longer that men, meaning more women than men are available for such friendships. When older women can find available men with whom to be friends, they may hesitate to become too close. This is especially true if either are married. These women may also worry about what others are thinking, as they do not want to appear improper or forward.