How Do Older Adult Relationships Impact Psychological and Physical Health?

Relationships evolve over the course of a person’s life. Camaraderie with coworkers and neighbors may shift and change as people age and assume new jobs or locations. Likewise, relationships with friends and family members also ebb and flow based on circumstances and maturity. It is thought that positive relationships with others enhance physical and psychological well-being. In fact, research suggests that healthy and supportive relationships can provide protection from stress and illness. But little attention has been given to the effects of relationships as people enter their later years in life.

Unlike relationships forged in early and mid-life, relationships maintained in older adulthood tend to be based on mutual respect and are valued for their positive benefits. However, relationships with some individuals, such as family members, may still present stress and conflict. To better understand how these ambivalent relationships compare to entirely negative relationships with respect to health in later life, Karen S. Rook of the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California recently conducted a study examining the influence of relationships on physical and psychological health in a sample of 916 elderly adults.

She found that the participants had more ambivalent relationships than exclusively negative relationships and that the ambivalent relationships, regardless of their negative aspects, had little effect on well-being. In contrast, the results revealed that the negative relationships had significant negative health consequences on the participants. Rook believes this could be due to the fact that even though the ambivalent relationships had negative qualities, they also had positive qualities that buffered the participants from negative outcomes. She added, “Considered together, these complementary processes have an influence on the quality of older adults’ social relationships and, in turn, on their physical health and psychological well-being.” The exclusively negative relationships did not offer any rewarding benefits and therefore were more harmful, causing more stress and maladaptive coping strategies. On a positive note, Rook noted that the number of ambivalent relationships exceeded the number of exclusively negative relationships, suggesting that as people mature, they seek out relationships with others that will be more productive and provide more rewarding interactions.

Rook, K. S., Luong, G., Sorkin, D. H., Newsom, J. T., Krause, N. (2012). Ambivalent versus problematic social ties: Implications for psychological health, functional health, and interpersonal coping. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029246

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  • lena


    July 27th, 2012 at 3:26 PM

    I just can’t imagine living my life in such a negative relationship for so long. Life is too short to live with someone that you really don’t like being around and don’t get along with.

  • Stacey


    July 28th, 2012 at 4:31 AM

    No matter how contentious the relationship, in the end family is family and that has to count for something.

    Sometimes these relationships are like oil and water, they don’t mix at all! But that doesn’t mean that they can be discounted and written off. Maybe this just means that you don’t spend a ton of time together, but maybe you should take the time at some point to get to know one another btter and not always be at odds.

    That’s maybe the ideal world and not reality for many families, but given the chance to work together or fight, I think that I wuld choose the work together option.

  • AmyH


    July 29th, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    I am sort of surprised that ambivalent relationships and negative relationships are viewed as two different things, because I guess I would have previously lumped those into the same category. I can see that there some differences, though, after reading the descriptions here. With that said, I would much prefer to have more relationship swith others that cause no harm to my physical and mental well-being, although I am sure that most of us have this mix of everything going on in our own lives. Now it feels like it should be time to begin weeding out some of those that are less than beneficial to me.

  • joshua


    July 31st, 2012 at 12:14 AM

    I think the reason why ambivalent relationships do not cause as much damage as an exclusively negative relationship is because we value the positive aspects of the ambivalent relationship so much that it overcomes the negative aspects in our mind.We wouldn’t hold on to that relationship otherwise,now,would we?!

    Whatever it is, we constantly mature and even ambivalent relationships can be reduced if there are enough exclusivel;y positive relationships in a person;s life. At least that’s my feeling.

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