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November 22, 2023

New paper explores the impact of family ties on older adults

Contact: Jon Meerdink ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR — Family connections draw special attention around the holidays, but there may be more to holiday gatherings than spending time with relatives. New research indicates that family ties in older adults have a positive impact on their mental health and social participation.

Family Ties and Older Adult Well-Being: Incorporating Social Networks and Proximity,” published recently in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B, examines how family connections affect different aspects of life in adults aged 70 or older. Researchers Sarah E. Patterson, Ph.D. of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, and Rachel Margolis, Ph.D., of the University of Western Ontario, were co-authors of the publication.

“We were interested in understanding how much the presence of family ties matters for older adults’ well-being but also in measuring the quality of those relationship ties,” said Patterson.

Patterson and Margolis found that adults without family ties — referred to as “kinless” in the literature — had worse mental health and were less likely to participate in social activities than older adults who were close to their family.

“Social activities in the last month included any of the following:  visiting your family or friends who don’t live with you, attending religious services, going to clubs or organized activities, and going out for enjoyment,” said Patterson.

Family ties aren’t all the same, and the paper demonstrates that in some cases, low-quality family connections can actually have a detrimental effect. “Disconnected” older adults who were not socially or physically close with their family also had worse mental health and were less likely to participate in social activities than older adults who were close to their family.

“It can have just as much impact  to have low-quality family relationships than to not have them at all,” Patterson said.

But while negative family ties can be detrimental, strong social family ties are valuable, even when older adults live far from their family. According to Patterson, a strong family tie creates benefits that are unaffected by distance. Older adults who lived away from their family reported similar levels of mental health and social participation relative to the group of older adults in the survey who lived in close proximity and were also socially close to their family.

“A lot of people are worried that as families live farther away from one another that there will be a negative effect,” said Patterson. “But our findings show that it depends –sometimes the quality of the tie matters more than the distance from them.”

The paper is available via the Journal of Gerontology: Series B.