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The Importance of Relationships in Aging

Late adulthood is a time when people evaluate their lives and relationships.

Courtesy of Pixabay
Source: Courtesy of Pixabay

For many, late adulthood may be marked by physical or cognitive decline and socioemotional loss (Wong, Hall, Justice, & Hernandez, 2015). Despite the difficulties faced, support systems can serve as a buffer. Wong et al. (2015) note that “Intergenerational families have more support to offer to each other, and their quality of life is enhanced by their interaction." In addition, the ability to reflect on one’s life in a positive way plays an important role. The ability to accept one’s life, the issues affecting it, and how one has impacted others over the course of his/her lifespan is related to happiness (Wong et al., 2015).

During this period of life, individuals are in Erikson’s ego integrity versus despair stage. A positive resolution of this psychosocial crisis leads people to have this aforementioned sense of acceptance. Those who do not resolve this stage positively may experience depression and hopelessness. People experiencing this may alienate themselves from the rest of the world and feel contemptuous of others (Wong et al., 2015).

It is also important to remember that the elderly still have a life to live, which can be filled with the desire to achieve new goals. Many individuals continue to set personal goals, and their success in reaching them is closely tied to life satisfaction. For some, they may feel rushed in their desire to complete their remaining goals, which can lead to anxiety (Wong et al., 2015). Even if not setting new goals, people may use this time to revisit past goals and evaluate how well they were met. The more goals they have successfully met, the more likely the individuals are to have a sense of self-fulfillment.

Support, Relationships, and Aging

Social support systems are extremely beneficial as people age. Elderly individuals may rely on family or extended family to take care of them if they have physical ailments or health needs. Social support systems are also useful in helping those who may have difficulty getting around with their daily tasks and needs. Golden et al. (2009) found, through a study of 1,299 elderly individuals (65+) from Dublin, that social isolation had negative effects, such as hopelessness, depression, and decreased well-being.

While social networks are beneficial, the nature of elderly individuals’ relationships is important to consider. When those who are older are left to feel as if they are being a burden, the relationships they experience this in will not lead to enhanced well-being. Thomas (2010) conducted a study of 689 adults, ranging from 50 to 95 years of age (M = 72 years) to examine how giving and receiving affected well-being. Her study was framed by identity theory, in which our identities are shaped by our interactions with groups and networks, which can, in turn, influence our behaviors.

In the study, Thomas (2010) analyzed data from the Social Networks in Adult Life (SNAL) survey conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan. She hypothesized that providing support would be associated with well-being amongst the elderly; however, when it came to receiving support, it would only be beneficial amongst certain relationships. This is because receiving support can undermine an elderly individual’s feeling of competence.

The results of her study demonstrated that giving support to others was associated with the well-being of the elderly. This is most likely because it demonstrates independence and usefulness to others (Thomas, 2010). Receiving support led to greater well-being when it was received from a spouse or siblings; however, when received from children, there was a negative association with well-being. This is most likely because, in the case of receiving support from children, norms are violated, and the elderly individual is likely to feel like a burden.


While support networks are beneficial to us in our later years, it is important to think of the nature of our relationships. It is also imperative to remember that while many people may physically slow down, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have an amazing life left to live.


Golden, J., Conroy, R. M., Bruce, I., Denihan, A., Greene, E., Kirby, M., & Lawlor, B. A. (2009). Loneliness, social support networks, mood and wellbeing in community‐dwelling elderly. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry: A Journal of the Psychiatry of Late Life and Allied Sciences, 24(7), 694-700.

Thomas, P. A. (2009). Is it better to give or to receive? Social support and the well-being of older adults. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 65(3), 351-357.

Wong, D. W., Hall, K. R., Justice, C. A., & Hernandez, L. W. (2015). Counseling individuals through the lifespan. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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