Some Aspects of Ageing and Social Relationships Part 1
John W. Osborne, Ph.D
Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta
People in their fifties usually become more aware of their Ageing as a result of the increasing frequency and intensity of Ageing feedback (Karp, 1988). This feedback comes from four main sources: the body, an inter-generational environment (e.g., children and grandchildren), one's age in relation to others in social and work contexts, and the death of others within one's own generation.
People in developed countries are living longer. Women, on average, live longer than men. Unfortunately, the longer we live the more likely we are to lose friends and family to death. Watching the obituaries is a common pastime for many elders. As they see their friends, spouses and family members die feelings of isolation can increase. We are social beings who are born into a social environment, be it family, town, tribe, village, city or country. We need relationships with other humans in order to be truly human. Nonetheless, coming to terms with our ultimate isolation can transform the quality of our social relationships.
Let me explain what I mean by "ultimate isolation." Your and my experiences of our environments are unique. Other people cannot experience your experience or mine. We often have experiences of a shared environment that are very similar. However, despite such shared similarities in our experiences there will always be differences that make each person's experience unique. When I die the world, as I experience it, dies with me. Another way of expressing this idea is to suggest that our experiences are subjective. Unless one understands this existential fact it is unlikely that one can be a good listener and thus begin to understand other's experiences of their world(s). A discussion of a movie, seen by all discussants, can quickly reveal individual differences as well as shared experiences. I refer readers to Irvin Yalom's outstanding discussion of this topic in his Existential Psychotherapy (1980). Yalom points out that until we come to terms with the potentially frightening prospect that no one will ever experience the world in quite the same way that we do, we are less well equipped to successfully join an intimate relationship with another person. He uses the analogy of the A frame to demonstrate that relationships that are born of co-dependency are likely to collapse if one side of the frame goes down. Another way of explaining this situation is to suggest that until we have dealt with our own existential anxieties and have accepted responsibility for our choices, begun to create our own meanings and come to terms with our ultimate aloneness and mortality, we are more likely to wind up seeking refuge by merging with others. The escape into an A frame relationship where both partners are seeking security and refuge is more vulnerable to collapse than a relationship where each partner faces the challenge of their own fears and anxieties.
The cumulative loss of friends and family is often accompanied by feelings of isolation and abandonment. These feelings can also be the result of children leaving the home. This transition to the "empty nest" is reported to be hardest for mothers to bear. The transition to retirement is thought to be the most difficult transition for working males.
In today's world adult children are likely to find work somewhere other than their home city or town. They may even move to another country in search of a career or for other reasons. The days have passed when most Australian families lived and worked in one town or city. Family members are often dispersed across the country and even the world. This dispersion of the modern family tends to make family connections less frequent and more difficult even though there are the compensations of email and cheaper telephone rates. Some of the newer generations of children may seldom see, hear or meet their aunts, uncles, cousins or grand parents. Family social networks, that provided social nurturing and feelings of belonging, are weaker for many families. Perhaps it is all part of the world being smaller in terms of travel but paradoxically more inclined to physically disperse families.
Another factor that can be problematic for social relationships as we age is retirement to an unfamiliar environment. Kahn and Antonucci (1980) have emphasized the importance of our moving through life with a "social convoy." The convoy is made up of all the friends, age peers, family and relatives, work associates etc. that have been and continue to be part of our lives to a greater or lesser extent. If a retirement move to another location results in the loss of part of this supportive "social convoy" the result could be an increase in social isolation.
Such a move, although positive in many ways, can result in the loss of friends, family and connections that can help us establish our credibility and facilitate our efforts to advance projects that we may have in mind. Moving to another location, unless it is in the same town or city, can result in the loss status and power and all the connections that one routinely uses to achieve goals. Add to this the task maintaining social connections that existed in a previous location and building new friendships and associations in an unfamiliar city or town. The task can be difficult. At retirement age retirees are no longer powered by the kind of energy they had in their younger years. The willingness to " chase ambulances," as young lawyers are reported to do, is gone. The time frame is different. Retirees are moving towards the last phases of their lives and not the beginnings that have previously centered upon home, family and career. In our younger years we are more motivated to move out into the world to contact other people socially. We are in the process of gaining information and experience with which to navigate our life. In retirement we no longer have as much need or capacity to engage in this type of information gathering
Carstensen, Gross and Fung (1997) have used a theory of socio-emotional selectivity to explain the social habits of older people. They believe that as people age they become more selective in their choice of social partners based upon the desire to minimize negative emotional experiences and maximize pleasurable social experiences. With increased Ageing the decrease in social contact occurs mainly with peripheral social connections. More time is spent with long-time friends and family. Older people prefer the company of fewer friends with whom they feel very comfortable. It has been shown that older people avoid negative emotions through selecting social relationships that are more likely to be emotionally agreeable. So if any older people are worried about their declining interest in widening their circle of friends they may take comfort in the fact that this is a normative pattern.
An older person's social activities may also be influenced by their personality. The extent to which this happens is unclear.
Those elders whose primary focus is on the outer world may be more inclined to reach out for social contact with others (extraverts). We tend to think of people whose primary focus is their own inner world (introverts) are less likely to spend as much energy or time reaching out to others. A common prejudice is that introverts are less happy than extraverts. However, to see happiness as a function of peoples' orientation to their world(s) is simplistic. Costa and McCrae (1980) believe that happiness is more related to a person's level of neuroticism. Some extraverts can be very neurotic (e.g., those who appear to be driven to the point of compulsion in terms of their social behaviour). Some extraverts have neurotic existential fears of aloneness that lead them to be out and about contacting other people. Almost any social contact may be better than being alone. There is also the mistaken prejudice that introverts are anti-social. It is important to keep in mind that none of us are entirely extraverted or introverted. The withdrawn anti-social introvert is an extreme but there are many happy introverts. A famous example of a very sociable introvert is the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon spent most of his time over a period of years working on his masterpiece. Nonetheless, he was much sought after socially by many friends. From time to time he would indulge his friendships at various London clubs. He was widely appreciated as an interesting conversationalist (Storr, 1988).
...To be continued
John Osborne is happy to respond to questions from readers. Please feel free to make contact at email@example.com
15 October 2003
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