Growing Old, With Family and Friends

Given the past century’s dramatic increases in life expectancy, at least for those living in developed nations, much research is now centering on how to increase the quality of those additional years of life. Adding to this research is a new paper assessing how marriage, parenthood, and social network impacts the subjective well-being and mental health of older adults.

To open their study, the researchers—who hail from universities in Germany and the Netherlands—point out that “Evidence suggests that being married or living with a partner can have a positive effect on life satisfaction and is associated with higher well-being, better mental health and fewer depressive symptoms in old age.” They contrast this finding with another demonstrating that “Parenthood, on the other hand, does not appear to be associated with enhanced mental health.” Many studies have demonstrated that, particularly for women, subjective well-being and depressive symptoms tend to be worse for parents, but particularly for parents who have resident children. The researchers also point out “evidence that the relationship between children and well-being becomes more positive for older adults.” Next, the researchers point to studies that clearly limn the benefits of social networks to older adults. In their study, they aim to bring together the relationship between both family and social support, particularly seeking to define what that social support looks like in terms of personal closeness, proximity, times contacted per week, etc. The researchers hypothesize: “i) A positive association with being married, ii) a positive association with the number of children and grandchildren not living at home, and iii) a positive association with having a strong social network implied by family background.”

For their study, the authors turn to a cross-national database, and target adults 50 years old and older. Their data consists of information gathered from over 55,000 adults not living in a nursing home, between 2010 and 2012, from 16 European countries. They controlled for age, gender, country of residence, urban residence, employment, education, income, and a number of other potential variables. They also asked questions to determine self-assessed physical health, and also whether the respondents took medications for sleep, anxiety, or depression. To measure social support networks, the researchers sought to determine the network’s size (how many persons the individual discussed important matters with), relationship (partner, children, other relatives, friends, and others), contact frequency, geographical proximity, and closeness.

The results for the most part supported the researchers’ hypotheses. For the family categories, they find that “marriage is consistently positively correlated with well-being and lack of depressive symptoms.” They also find a positive association between children and well-being, but only for non-resident children. (When children are still living at home, parents feel stressed and overwhelmed with juggling work and parenting roles.) Surprisingly to the researchers, “Grandchildren correlate positively with life satisfaction and network satisfaction, but negatively with quality of life and lack of depressive symptoms.” As they did not capture data on whether grandchildren lived with grandparents, the researchers write that they cannot account for this finding. The findings for family support are very similar for both men and women.

Next, the researchers turn to results for social network. Unsurprisingly, in support of their hypothesis, “all network types relate positively to measures of well-being, for both males and females, even after controlling for family structure.” They find that overall, the “partner” network tends to be the strongest predictor of life satisfaction and lack of depressive symptoms. They also “find consistently that the closeness and contact measure is positively correlated with mental health and well-being,” but “a negative relationship of mere proximity with well-being and mental health.” In other words, having friends or family nearby, but not interacting regularly with them or feeling close to them, is actually detrimental. In closing, they highlight, “We find clear evidence of positive relationhips [sic] of all types of social networks with our measures of well-being, over and beyond the respective underlying family status indicators. Hence, a simple focus on family status measures, not accounting for the resulting network structures, misses important aspects of the relationship of family and well-being and mental health.” The researchers elaborate that it is not just being married per se that is beneficial, but also the quality of that “partner” status and how people feel about that relationship. 

The researchers continue, “Taken together, our results suggest that social networks may be important for well-being and mental health in old age. Spouses, partners and children are often the basis of long-lasting social networks, which can provide social support to elderly people.” This paper is a valuable contribution to the literature on the well-being of elderly adults, and an important reminder in a day and age when many suggest that various social policies can fill the gap that lack of family creates for all too many.

(Christoph Becker, Isadora Kirchmaier, and Stefan T. Trautmann, “Marriage, parenthood and social network: Subjective well-being and mental health in old age,” PLoS ONE 14.7 [July 2019]: e0218704.)