Relationships among the Elderly: The Effects on One’s Health and Psychosocial Well Being
Submitted by Mary Tencza, RN, BSN
Mary Tencza, RN, BSN is a graduate of Drexel University.
Advances in medicine are allowing many adults to live longer lives than previous generations. In fact, the elderly population is becoming one of the largest growing sectors of the present population. Recently, researchers have begun studying what factors contribute to successful aging. These studies are showing that the impact of family and social relationships plays an important part in one’s health and psychosocial well being.
The Pennsylvania Department of Aging (2008) defines an elderly person as one who is age 65 or older. Those age 85 and above are considered to be the oldest old and are predicted to increase 44% in number by 2020 (PA Department of Aging). As one reaches these once unfathomable ages researchers are interested in analyzing their psychosocial and health dispositions as to what these elderly adults ascribe to their longevity.
Older adults attribute successful aging to quality of life (Reichstadt, Sengupta, Depp, Palinkas, and Jeste, 2010). Flood, Nies, and Seo (2010) define successful aging as one’s ability to successfully adapt to their physical and social surroundings. This satisfaction can be all encompassing contributing to an overall sense of a purposeful life (Flood et al.). Many older adults noted that a “feeling that somebody cares” played an important role in this sense of well being (Reichstadt et al.). Social interaction and support with spouses, family and friends can provide one with an acceptance of self and lend to a decrease in mortality (Antonucci, Birditt, and Webster, 2010).
There are many different types of relationships such as social, marital, and family. Each of these relationships can have a negative or positive influence on the individual. Trudel, Boyer, Villeneuve, Anderson, Pilon, and Bounader (2007) note that a positive relationship with a spouse can be one of the greatest buffers against physical and psychosocial problems. This relationship has the most impact on one’s sense of purpose and mental disposition (Trudel et al.).
A study by David Sbarra (2009) found that C-reactive protein (CRP) levels in older married men were lower than in their single counterparts. He attributes this finding to one of the health benefits a quality marriage can offer (Sbarra). An article in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch (2010) notes that stress levels are decreased for older couples in strong relationships. The sharing of experiences and closeness may have a far greater impact on one’s health than previously realized (Gerstorf, Hoppmann, Kadlec, and McArdle 2009).
Antonucci et al. (2010) find that the negative effects of a marital relationship may actually improve health while contributing to depression. These negative may be real or perceived as the older individual can interpret demands made on them as smothering or pressuring (Antonucci et al.). Other negative effects such as declining physical or cognitive functions of a spouse have been found to increase one’s depressive symptoms (Gerstorf et al., 2009). It is interesting to note that wives with depressive symptoms were more likely to have an impact on their spouse’s cognitive decline as well as their own (Gerstorf et al.).
Older adult relationships with children or other family members did not carry the importance of a spousal relationship unless the person is unmarried (Antonucci et al., 2010). Positive interaction with family did not show the decrease in mortality that one might expect (Antonucci et al.). It has been suggested that as one ages their family ties often remain intact as opposed to other relationships since family are thought to be a greater source of support, care, and emotional well being than a social relationship (Shaw, Krause, Liang, and Bennett, 2007). Antonucci et al. suggest that families of those nearer to death may choose to hide any troubles and focus on the positive.
Many elderly report that social involvement contributes to a positive self attitude and self acceptance (Reichstadt et al., 2010). Shaw et al., (2007) note that social support is directly linked to decreased mortality and offers positive health benefits. One reason for this may be that social relationships as opposed to family and marital are chosen by the elderly person (Antonucci et al., 2010). This allows the individual to surround himself with an effective support system. A study by Shaw et al. (2007) finds that elderly women are often the ones providing and receiving more support than elderly men. However, the study also notes that men are happier with their support systems overall (Shaw et al.).
Interviews conducted among the elderly by Reichstadt et al.(2010) note that those who found a meaningful way to stay active in society by working, volunteering or interacting socially expressed a greater sense of happiness. Self acceptance and a realistic approach to one’s present circumstances greatly contributed to psychosocial well being and a better quality of life (Reichstadt et al). Murray and Crummett (2010) find that participating in social activities can lead to a positive physical and mental state.
Loneliness and isolation on the other hand have been shown to lead to health disparities and depressive symptoms (Shiovitz and Leitsch, 2010). Mauk notes that 38% of older women and 19% of older men lived alone as of 2005. A study by Sato, Kishi, Suzukawa, Horikawa, Saijo, and Yoshioka (2007) found that lacking a sense of worth may contribute to increased mortality. Some of the elderly interviewed by Shiovitz and Leitsch reported feeling forgotten by their community and were
noted to have higher systolic blood pressure readings and cardiovascular issues. Harvard Women’s Health Watch (2010) reports that premature death was found to increase by 50% in those without social or family ties.
It is interesting to note that some of those that experience loneliness do not live alone (Shiovitz and Leitsch). According to Mauk (2009) these older adults may being dealing with depression that family or friends misconstrue as a normal part of aging. Some may be dealing with mistreatment or neglect at the hands of a caregiver. Shiovitz and Leitsch (2010) note that some relationships are harmful and detrimental to the individual.
In conclusion, it is noted that positive relationships with spouse, family or friends are a significant factor in the overall health and well being of the elderly person (Antonucci et al., 2010). As one ages support systems tend to decrease and it is important for one to remain socially active (Antonucci et al.). Positive marital relationships seem to provide the greatest means of protection from health and mental disparities (Trudel et al., 2007). As Reichstadt et al. (2010) note, those that give of themselves to others, cherish each day, possess a positive self attitude, and maintain a social support system are key evidence as to how one can age successfully.
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