Title

Strengthening Late-life Family Connections

(FS2024 Reviewed Jan. 2022)
Summary

Our ability to interact with and connect to family members is integral, especially for those individuals in the second half of life. Peer connections are increasingly important as people age and are vital to well-being. Peers refer to individuals around the same age as you. This includes spouses/partners, siblings, cousins, and close friends.

Lead Author
Lead Author:
Heather Fuller, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Other Authors

Taylor Pikala, B.S., HDFS Alumni

Ann Mullen, B.S., HDFS Alumni

Availability
Availability:
Web only
Publication Sections

In late adulthood, social networks can include family relationships with friends, adult children, romantic partners or spouses, siblings, parents, grandchildren or extended family members such as cousins. Of these relationships, older adults are more frequently in contact with their peers — romantic partners, siblings or friends. With their peers, older adults are more likely to confide in them and share life stories, and are likely to engage in shared hobbies or leisure time. Due to sharing similar life experiences, peers often are able to relate to one another and discuss perspectives on a level that can be personally validating and rewarding. These significant relationships with peers impact how well individuals are able to age successfully.

Additionally, conflicts among same-age family relationships tend to decrease. This tendency for lower conflict may help foster greater bonds and connections.

The goal of this informational brochure is to provide background on the significance of three key same-age relationships in later life: siblings, romantic relationships and friendships. In addition, you will find strategies to help improve and maintain strong bonds with your same-age relationships in later adulthood.

Sibling Relationships

Did you know that the sibling relationship is often the longest relationship we have in our lives?

Siblings share a lifetime of memories and tend to be permanently shaped by their shared childhood experiences.

Often, siblings tend to be similar in age, which allows them to relate to each other’s experiences in a way that many other relationships cannot. Siblings similar in age were more likely to be raised in the same environment with similar influences.

Siblings may grow apart through time as they experience major life events such as marriage or becoming parents or grandparents. Despite this, the sibling relationship remains one of the most significant and valuable bonds in later life.

The strength of sibling ties depends on a variety of things such as personalities, age differences, the number of siblings and gender of siblings. For example, sisters tend to report the closest relationships.

Siblings who live in closer geographic proximity to one another tend to develop stronger bonds due to greater opportunities to spend good-quality time together. Even without living close in distance, siblings have other ways to maintain this important sibling bond, such as scheduling time to speak on the phone or planning vacations together.

Strategies to Foster Strong Sibling Bonds

  • Make time to connect by phone, texts, email, handwritten letters or in person.
  • Stay connected through planning special moments and shared events (e.g., travel, family reunions, concerts).
  • Be supportive and listen to them when they are confiding in you. Be available to provide advice and encouragement.
  • Resolve previous disagreements and make amends through conversation.
  • Reminisce about your parents and shared childhood memories.
  • Stay involved with each other’s families.
  • Laugh together.
  • Remember and honor special days together.

Romantic Relationships: Spouse/Partner

Older romantic relationships are complex and have a strong influence on quality of life, health and well-being.

Romantic relationships vary, ranging from long-term or more recent, marriage or partnered cohabitation, heterosexual or same-sex relationships, remarriages or living apart together relationships. Late-life romantic relationships can be diverse and dynamic.

Empty nesting, retirement and the death of parents are significant life transitions that may occur during mid to late adulthood that can impact one’s romantic relationship.

Research on long-term relationships suggests that some means to success are honesty, open communication, respect, positive attitudes and shared goals of companionship. Growing evidence indicates that late-life romantic relationships may be one of the happiest times for romance. Late-life romantic partners report similar levels of relationship satisfaction as young newlyweds. Older adults report fewer arguments and disagreements than younger couples, particularly due to understanding one another’s values and mutual goals, which can include optimizing each other’s emotional and physical well-being.

The number of social roles and outside demands often are reduced in later life as many older adults are retired, meaning older adults are free to choose how they want to spend their leisure time. Romantic relationships have proven to have a positive impact on one’s physical and psychological well-being. Research suggests that a strong romantic relationship plays a role in improving older adults’ health, and reducing their loneliness and reports of depression.

Strategies to Foster a Strong Spousal Bond

  • Prioritize communication and make time for intimate conversations.
  • Express affection through touch and words.
  • Show appreciation for your partner. An unexpected compliment brightens anyone’s day.
  • Make time for hobbies, both together and individually.
  • Accept the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship. Continue to develop coping strategies for the ups and downs encountered throughout life.
  • When challenges arise, focus on how you can work as a team to solve problems.
  • Acknowledge the passage of time by acknowledging the changes you experience as you get older.
  • Reminisce about the memories from your shared journey together.

Friendship

Many older adults report that they have close friends who they consider to be just like family. Friendship is a relationship that can endure across the entire lifespan, serving a vital role for sustaining social connection in late life when other relationships may become unavailable. Sometimes friendships become so important and central to our lives that we consider them to be Chosen Family, which is a close relationship with someone who a person considers to be family but who doesn’t have blood or legal family ties.

Chosen Family • a close relationship with someone a person considers to be family but does not share blood or legal family ties

Friendship is an integral part of social life and through the years has been shown to have important benefits to well-being for individuals of all ages. Studies consistently show that friend relationships are as important as family ties in predicting psychological well-being in adulthood and old age. In fact, people with a best friend may even live longer!

Connections with friends have the potential to improve one’s physical and mental health. Having someone other than a family member who you can turn to as a confidant is a resource that can be relied upon throughout all stages of life, but most notably in late life. This is especially important because other relationships may have changed or be less available. Men and women benefit from having close friendships in late life.

Close friends can be an exceptional source of emotional support and are less likely to be stressful in nature as many family relationships can be. Seeking ways to maintain old friendships and foster new friendships in older adulthood has important and positive implications for successful aging.

Strategies to Foster Strong Friendship Bonds

  • Make time to connect over the phone, by text or email, or in person.
  • Participate in shared interests together such as exercise, gardening, crafts or games.
  • Be mutually supportive and listen to each other during times of stress. Friends are often the best confidants.
  • Stay involved with each other’s families.
  • Laugh together and celebrate the fun moments in life.
  • Plan special moments, events or trips.
  • Be available for advice, emotional support and companionship.

Your Own Reflections

Sibling Relationship:

Think back to a favorite memory you share with your sibling(s). Why do you think this is your favorite and most memorable?

Romantic:

What is the most important element to a successful romantic relationship in your opinion? Why do you think this is important to you?

Friendship:

Do you have any childhood friendships that are still strong today?

Resources

 

National Council on Family Relationships: www.ncfr.org/ncfr- report/focus/family-focus-aging

Blieszner, R., Ogletree, A.M., and Adams, R.G. (2019). Friendship in Later Life: A Research Agenda. Innovation in aging, 3(1), igz005. https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igz 005

J. Bookwala (Ed.) (2016). Couple relationships in the middle and later years: Their nature, complexity, and role in health and illness. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14897-001

Connidis and Barnett (2018). Family Ties and Aging, 3rd edition. Sage: Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Langer, L., and Love, M., (2019) The ties of later life: aging siblings, Educational Gerontology, 45(9), 573-576, https://doi.org/10.1080/03601277. 2019.1679400

Thomas, P.A., Liu, H., Umberson, D., (2017). Family relationships and well-being, Innovation in Aging, 1(3). https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igx 025

Ace of Family Game

Who Can Play?

Anybody! This is a game to talk about family relationships that helps you explore your relationships with siblings, spouse or romantic partner, and close friends — those same-aged family relationships.

Number of Participants Needed

Unlimited number, (minimum of two people)

What You Will Need

  • Standard deck of playing cards
  • Ace of Family questions sheet

What Relationship Type Each Suit Refers To

♥ Hearts = romantic

♠ Spades = siblings

♦ Diamonds = friends

♣ Clubs = yourself

How To Play

  1. Gather a group of family members or friends (at least two of you). Note: You don’t have to be together in person to play. This game works just as well if you want to play over the phone, Skype, FaceTime, etc., as long as you explain the object of the game and someone has a set of playing cards.
  2. Shuffle the deck of cards (including the two jokers) and set them in a pile facing down; have your Ace of Family Questions Sheet in front of you.
  3. The youngest player goes first, following in order from youngest to oldest.
  4. The first player draws the top card and places it face up for everyone to see.
  5. Match the face-up card with the correct question next to the card pictured on the Ace of Family Questions Sheet.
  6. Read the question aloud and the individual who drew the card answers the question to the best of the person’s ability. Not all cards and categories may apply to you, so think about how the question can be revised to fit your situation.

Variation

Everyone can answer each question if you choose.

Winning

This isn’t a game of winning and losing; the object of the game is to get to know your family and friends better and share some special memories together. Maybe you found out that you enjoy the same memories as your siblings growing up. Whatever you learned, we hope that it was enjoyable. Challenge others and have fun.

Ace of Family Question Sheet

Print pages 6 and 7 from Strengthening Late-life Family Connections, for use when playing the game with your family.