Adulthood And Aging Social Processes And Development

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One of the most reliable findings in social gerontology is that with age, people report fewer social partners. Assuming that cultural ageism is responsible, researchers had construed this phenomenon as society's rejection of older adults. Laura Carstensen's (1999) socioemotional selectivity theory, however, posits that decrease in social network size is a developmental process of social selection that begins in early adulthood. According to the theory, this decrease is the direct result of people's actively reducing the number of peripheral social partners with whom they interact; in contrast, the number of emotionally close social partners stays relatively constant with age. The age-related preference for close social partners, as opposed to acquaintances, is documented in many studies of men and women using ethnicity diverse groups of Americans and samples from Germany, Hong Kong, and mainland China.

Close social partners provide emotionally meaningful interactions, and satisfaction with family members, including siblings, spouse, and children, increases with age. The sibling relationship represents one of the longest, more enduring relationships in life, and Victor Cicirelli's (1989) research reveals that people who report positive relationships with siblings, particularly their sisters, also report lower levels of depression. In addition, the marital tie is also important to overall well-being. Across the life span, marital satisfaction follows a curvilinear pattern: high in the early years of marriage, decreasing slightly into middle adulthood, and then rising again toward the end of middle age. People whose marriages survived into old age report high levels of marital happiness and contentment. Although they reported that difficult times did occur, they attribute their marriage's longevity to strong levels of mutual commitment and friendship.

Children are sources of high satisfaction for parents of all ages. Karen Fingerman's (2003) research reveals that middle-aged mothers enjoy watching their daughters enter adulthood, and older mothers benefit from the intergener-ational kinship that their children and grandchildren provide. The relationships between parents and children are marked by reciprocity, with both generations reporting high levels of shared emotional and instrumental support. The type of instrumental support, however, varies by age, such that older parents are more likely to provide financial support, and their middle-aged children are more likely to provide practical assistance.

Although the most emotionally meaningful relationships often include family members, the strain of caregiv-ing can create tension. With the exception of a minority of adults who experience increases in their sense of purpose and life satisfaction, most caregivers experience decreases in well-being. For both men and women, rates of depression are higher among caregivers than the general population, and physical complaints often increase with the added physical and emotional strain of caregiving, especially for those caring for a family member with a dementing illness. These family caregivers are most often women—wives, daughters, or daughters-in-law. When men are caregivers, they often receive more instrumental help but less emo tional support from friends and family members than their female counterparts.

The majority of research has focused predominantly on the insular traditional family group of children and parents, but the definition of family is changing, and Vern Bengtson (2001) has written about several influences that are altering the picture of family relationships and age. With greater longevity, intergenerational connections will become more important to family members to fulfill emotional and practical needs. In addition, higher rates of divorce and remarriage introduce understudied unions that will also influence social networks of older adults. Finally, non-European-American family systems often include extended kin networks, and the importance of these family members has been relatively ignored in the literature.

In addition to family members, friends play a significant role in social processes and well-being across adulthood for both men and women. Although findings are conflicting, men generally report larger social networks than women, and women's friendships are marked by greater intimacy, mutual self-disclosure, and greater emotional support. Men often report less satisfaction with their friendships than women, but the greater emotional bonds women experience may also be detrimental: Women are more likely to report more burden from their friendships than men.

Friendships comprise many different types of associations, from casual relationships to more intimate, collaborative, and enduring bonds. Friends serve as confidants, model coping strategies, enhance self-esteem, and buffer stressful life events. Although friendships are important for all age groups, research by the laboratories of Antonnuci, Levitt, and Carstensen indicates that types of relationships vary in importance over the adult life span. Young adults tend to have many friends and a wide circle of affiliations, and happiness is related to larger networks comprised of many acquaintances. By middle adulthood, people selectively reduce their number of friends and form close, long-term relationships with those remaining in their network. In late adulthood, as spouses and old friends die, maintaining relationships with close friends becomes especially central to well-being. Karen Rook's (1995) work, however, emphasizes that older adults also rely on companions for recreational activities, even if these casual friends do not provide emotional support per se.

Whether with family or friends, social connection is necessary and essential to overall well-being. Having meaningful relations is associated with decreased reactivity to stressors, greater immune functioning, decreased risk of some diseases such as hypertension, faster recovery from illness, lower chances of relapse, and even lower risk of mortality. In fact, measures of social support, such as the absence or loss of social ties, are as important in predicting mortality as other known medical indicators, such as cholesterol level and smoking history. Social connection is also important to emotional well-being, including lower rates of depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbance. Of course, not all social interactions are beneficial. Karen Rook's research indicates that negative social exchanges have stronger associations with well-being than do positive social exchanges. Such findings clarify the importance of positive social relations on well-being, and the potential risks incurred by negative exchanges.

Current knowledge suggests that social processes do not diminish in importance across the adult life span. For every age group, social connections are necessary for physical and mental well-being. Developmental processes, however, alter the structure and meaning of social relationships; over time, the number of social partners decreases, but the meaning of close friends and family members becomes even more central to the daily lives of older men and women.


Bengston, V. L. (2001). Beyond the nuclear family: The increasing importance of multigenerational bonds (The Burgess Award Lecture). Journal of Marriage & the Family, 63, 1-16. Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: Atheory of socioemotional selectivity theory. American Psychologist, 54, 165-181. Cicirelli, V. G. (1989). Feelings of attachment to siblings and well-

being in later life. Psychology & Aging, 4(2), 211-216. Fingerman, K. (2003). Mothers and their adult daughter: Mixed emotions, enduring bonds. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Rook, K. S. (1995). Support, companionship, and control in older adults' social networks: Implications for well-being. In J. F. Nussbaum & J. Coupland (Eds.), Handbook of communication and aging research. LEA's communication series (pp. 437-463). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Susan T. Charles Melanie Horn

University of California, Irvine

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