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Changing Relationships in Late Adulthood
Late adulthood is often mistakenly viewed as a time of relaxation, where everything slows and an individual's life becomes more consistent and less stressful. In reality, late adulthood is a time of great change. Individuals retire, children move away, lifestyles alters significantly, and social ties decline. Most significantly, a person's relationships change significantly in late adulthood. This includes relationships with siblings, spouses, friends, children, and grandchildren. By considering these relationships and how they change, it will be shown that late adulthood is far from being a time of reduced stress. It may become a time of reduced stress if the individual makes the transition successfully, but the actual process of transition involves many significant changes.
One of the significant changes that occurs during late adulthood is that individuals often become more involved with their siblings. Stark and Hall (1988) suggest that this is partly because brothers and sisters are the only means of support left. This is especially true if the individual is divorced, widowed, has no children, or has only one or two children. However, Stark and Hall (1988) made another interesting point, which was that a large number of sibling relationships that had experienced significant rifts had these repaired in late adulthood. Considering that even without a family as support, there would still be friends available, it is suggested that there is another reason for the increased importance of sibling relationships in late adulthood. This reason is related to the process that occurs in late adulthood known as life review. Life review is described as a process "in which the person calls up, reflects on, and reconsiders past experiences, contemplating their meaning with the goal of achieving greater self-understanding" (Berk 2004, p. 586). The link between this and the sibling relationship is that a sibling is one of the few people that knows a person's history dating back to childhood. If an individual in late adulthood feels the need to gain an understanding of past events, talking to friends their own age may not help, since friends only know about a certain period of the individual's life. Stark and Hall (1988) support this by showing that siblings often share the process of reminiscing in late adulthood and consider this a rewarding activity. It is also noted that the process of life review is done as a means of attaining ego integrity (Butler 1968). This refers to Erikson's theory, which argues that late adulthood involves an ego integrity vs. despair psychological conflict. The ego integrity vs. despair conflict is described as involving a person coming to terms with their life and feeling "whole, complete, and satisfied with their achievements" (Berk 2004, p. 584). This relates to the sibling relationship because, as noted earlier, it is often a source of conflict in a person's life. This can be either because of an actual rift, or it can just be a separation that occurs as siblings get on with their own lives and move in different directions. In either case, there is a drifting apart and siblings tend to lose contact with each other. Stark and Hall (1988) noted that this was the case for many siblings and that individuals also felt guilt and remorse over the rift. Stark and Hall (1988) also noted that the majority of siblings overcome their rifts or their separations and reestablished the relationship in late adulthood. Considering the integrity vs. despair conflict and the sense of dissatisfaction individuals feel over the relationships with their siblings, it is suggests that this relationship is repaired as a means of helping the individual feel satisfied with their life. In short, the declining relationship is a source of regret and it is repaired to reduce this regret and allow a person to feel complete and satisfied. In summary then, siblings become increasingly important to individuals in late adulthood. This is partly because of a need to repair damaged relationships that have become a source of guilt and partly because siblings can engage in the process of life review together as they share memories of their lives and childhoods.
Another significant change that occurs in late adulthood is the relationship with the spouse. Berk (2004, p. 601) notes that "marital satisfaction peaks in late adulthood." There are several reasons for the improved relationship. One reason is a reduce in stress, since married couples in late adulthood often no longer have the stress of work or children. Another reason is that couples in middle adulthood usually have more time for leisure and often spend their leisure time together. This allows for couples to spend positive time together. This is different from adults in middle adulthood, whose time spent together will often be spent on required tasks, rather than voluntary tasks. Even though the company is the same in both cases, the circumstances greatly change how much marital partners enjoy each others company. Another reason for the improved relationship relates to the individual's ability to manage relationships. As Berk (2004, p. 601) explains,
Couples who have been married for at least 35 years resolve conflicts in ways that are less negative and more affectionate than do middle-aged coupled. Even in unhappy marriages, elders are less likely to let disagreements escalate into expressions of anger and resentment.
This difference is not just about individuals being married long enough to understand how to cope with problems with their partners. Instead, it is about individuals in late adulthood having a better understanding of other people and an improved ability to reduce conflict and maintain positive relationships. As well as applying to people who have been married for decades, it also applies to new marriages, including second or third marriages. Berk (2004, p. 601) also notes that this is largely related to an individual's need to reduce stress, where "the elderly protect themselves from stress by molding marital ties to make them as pleasant as possible." This illustrates that improved relationships in late adulthood are at least partly based on a change in attitude, where elderly people become focused on reducing stress and making their relationships as pleasant as possible. This change is also related to the social convoy, which is a model of a person's social ties throughout their life. This model represents with people as ships, with their place in the convoy illustrating their importance. In middle adulthood, family and close friends are usually in the central convoy, showing that these are the closest relationships. In the outer circle are other relationships such as those with workmates, other parents, neighbors, people known through sports or hobbies, community ties, and anyone else known on a social level. As people enter into late adulthood, the number of ships in the convoy greatly reduces. This leads to a convoy that is made up family and only a few other ties. In response to this reduced convoy, individuals in late adulthood place more importance on the relationships they do have. This explains why the relationship with the spouse takes on new importance. To protect this relationship, individuals in late adulthood will often adjust their needs and become less demanding of their spouse. This explains why individuals in late adulthood put more effort into maintaining pleasant relationships. Before moving on to other relationships, it is important to note that the relationship between partners isn't always smooth. This is especially true in the early years of late adulthood where major changes are occurring. The most significant change is that both partners are no longer working. As Seamon and Kenrick (1994, p. 408) note,
After retirement, husbands and wives spend more time together than ever before. Sometimes that can be more stressful than pleasant, as both partners try to adjust to a whole new set of mutual roles.
This often results in a period of conflict while the new situation is adapted to. However, as described by Keith and Schafer (1985) this ultimately leads to a new situation where both partners are more satisfied with household arrangements, generally agreeing that the relationship is fair and equitable. Overall then, the change in the relationship between spouses is generally one of strengthening and improving the relationship, as the two partners place more emphasis on the relationship.
In late adulthood, friends typically become of more importance. Peterson (2002) notes that friends play a special role because they link the individual to the larger social world. Individuals meet with friends as a way of keeping up with events in the world and in their own communities. This allows individuals to feel connected and avoids the problem of feeling isolated, alone, or rejected. It is also noted that older individuals have more secondary friends, which are described as "people who are not intimates but with whom they spend time occasionally" (Berk 2004, p. 606). This includes groups meeting to take part in activities such as playing bridge, lawn bowling, quilting, and various other craft activities. One of the important things to note about friendships in late adulthood is that they…[continue]
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