Debunking Myths about Getting Older

May 18, 2011

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Sometimes, the idea of getting older fills me with dread. This usually has to do with the inevitability of sun damage and gravity, but in the back of my mind I wonder- am I going to be lonely? Will I be staring at a nondescript outdoor scene from a sterile room? But then I think back on a trip to Australia, where I climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge. I initially thought this tourist attraction of climbing nearly 500 feet up and over the major throughway in the city was for the young (i.e. under 35) only. My partner and I were the youngest pair in the group- and by a few decades! I realized I needed to adjust my thinking about getting older. Some assumptions about aging adults are debunked in a recent review on social relationships across the adulthood. Here are just some of the many things to look forward to in older adulthood:

Loneliness is not inevitable

Being old is generally thought of as one filled with social isolation. This concern is one that is shared by many, including The National Council on Aging, which rated it a serious problem back in 2000. However, this might just be another stereotype that aging adults face. A recent study of adults age 65 and older revealed that only 13% of that population agreed that loneliness was a serious problem personally, while the general public (both in younger and similarly aged groups) thought the rates would be much higher. Many older adults rated deeper, more meaningful networks than their younger counterparts. For some people the number of friends /close confidants and amount of social support remained the same throughout adulthood. Changes in the network were found to be more often due to proactive maneuvering to maintain close ties and reduce contact with distant ones, than by death of a network member.

Social interactions deepen in satisfaction over time

While social networks seem to get smaller as one ages, that doesn’t mean an increase in loneliness. In fact, scientists that engage in lifespan research found that interactions between individuals in the remaining network were rated as more satisfying with age. We had mentioned in a previous blog that older adults reported better friendships and fewer fights with friends. Older rather than young or mid-life adults were more likely to report more feelings of happiness and positivity when they were interacting with friends. Many older adults reported that they received greater support and less interpersonal conflict from those around them.
One theory as to why posits that as individuals age, their goal-focus changes. While younger adults are trying to gain information, experience, or contacts for the future- thereby putting up with more negativity if it serves one of these goals- older adults seek to optimize well being and prioritize present-oriented goals in order to do so. They maintain only the contacts that preserve or increase rewarding social interactions.

Perceptions of Relationships Improve in later-life

Do relationships improve with age? Social partners are often rated as sources of stress at one point in time and later a sources of intimacy and closeness later; suggesting that older adults gain experience in regulating emotional situations. They could also just focus on the positive: many older adults rate their spouses more constructive during a conflict interaction than impartial coders (while middle-aged spouses rated each other less mercifully but more similarly to objective onlookers).
Even when close relationships are reported as ambivalent or difficult, older adults report more positive experiences and less negative evaluations. When older adults are upset with their partners, they still report fewer negative emotions than their younger counterparts. They are more likely to utilize kindness and forgiveness for social missteps.

Older adults may benefit from some stereotypes

Older adults may benefit from certain stereotypes- even when those stereotypes are negative- because they lead to more benevolent treatment. People respond differently to the same faux pas when it was committed by an older versus a younger adult. When the transgressor was older, people reported using more conflict avoidance strategies (e.g., ignoring it, explaining the transgression, forgiving) than when the offender was younger- even if the transgression was the same.
For many, getting older means freedom to choose how and with whom to spend time. Since goals have a new focus, many older adults restructure their network to maximize positivity, and use their experience to minimize negative feelings associated with transgressions. Some even experience more satisfying and positive social relationships than younger adults. With much to look forward to, wear sunscreen and plan ahead!

Reference Reading:

Lee, E (2010). Relationships get better with age.

Loung, G., Charles, S., and Fingerman, K (2011). Better with age: Social relationships across the adulthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(1) 9-23.

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