Unit 1: Relationships and intimacy

The development of older people is individually different. Indeed, this group shows more differentiation/individualisation when compared with earlier phases of life and is thus a less homogeneous group. Nonetheless, social relationships in later life are often subject to two stereotypes that are still deeply entrenched in public discourses. First, the notion of a crumbling of social and familial generational solidarity, second, "loneliness in later life" as a subject for negative images related to old age.

  Introduction

The development of older people is individually different. Indeed, this group shows more differentiation/individualisation when compared with earlier phases of life and is thus a less homogeneous group. Nonetheless, social relationships in later life are often subject to two stereotypes that are still deeply entrenched in public discourses. First, the notion of a crumbling of social and familial generational solidarity, second, "loneliness in later life" as a subject for negative images related to old age.


A central element of social integration in any phase of an individual's life is positive and meaningful social relationships. Close relationships are known to contribute to wellbeing throughout life and old age is no different. Support from, and satisfaction with, social networks shapes happiness with life (Bennett & Riedel 2013). While wide social networks are important, having at least one close confidant is sufficient to contribute toward well-being, particularly when progressing through medical treatments (Meyer 2000). Positive social relationships are therefore of utmost importance for the availability and impact of social support, especially, when an older individual needs help and care.

Four main criteria characterise social relationships in later life (Höpflinger 2014):

  1. Most spouses share one household, thus acting as first supporters for each other in everyday life. Most other social relationships to relatives and friends are subject to the "distant intimacy" principle. 
  2. Familial relationships versus non-familial ones: relatives are considered more important than friends. For instance, older people have more intense contacts to their own grandchildren than to other children or adolescents.
  3. Relations to family are given, to friends freely chosen.
  4. Age groups are generally considered in terms of generations. 

  Key messages

  • Humans choose, influence and change their immediate environment and thereby their social relationships, regardless of age.
  • Older people show more differentiation/individualisation when compared with earlier phases of life and should therefore not be treated as a homogeneous group.
  • Essential parts of an intimate relationship in later life are tenderness and sexuality.

  Learning objectives

At the end of this unit students are expected to:

  1. Understand the meaning of old age characteristics and be able to reflect on one's own personal views of age and ageing. 
  2. Appreciate the importance of social networks as instrumental supports for older people, which impact their success in negotiating socio-medical interventions.
  3. Understand and support the importance of intimacy and sexuality in later life as an essential part of an intimate relationship.

  Content

 
Case Study

Carl (75), a former carpenter, and Sophie (74), a former translator, have been married for forty-five years. They are currently enjoying their retirement and leisure time to travel and engage in sports activities. As their children have families of their own and live further away, Carl and Sophie spend the vast majority of their time together. They have rediscovered tenderness (for example holding hands while taking walks) and intimacy to be of great value for their relationship. Sophie says, she feels “young and more alive compared to when she was working”. After Carl suffered from a back injury that required hospitalisation and a long recovery period in which Sophie had to support him, they both decided to invest in their physical health and took to hiking “to be able to keep up with the grand-children when they visit and go on trips with the church retiree group”. Moreover, they decided to enjoy sexual activity “as long as they still can”.


Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you describe Carl and Sophie’s life? How could you characterise the relationship between 1) both the partners and 2) other people in their social environment? 
  2. Are there any aspects you found surprising while reading the case study?
  3. How does your impression of their relationships differ from your personal experiences with/or your expectations regarding older people?

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein