Changing Relationships in Late Adulthood

group of people hugging each other in a park

Relationships are ever-changing.

 

As you grow, evolve, and develop, so do your relationships.

 

And in late adulthood, it’s common to experience changing dynamics – as biological parents pass away, adult children become independent, and peers age.

 

While these changes can be difficult to navigate, they also present opportunities for growth and new experiences.

 

Let’s explore this further by identifying types of meaningful connections during late adulthood, examining how relationships change with age and sharing the best ways to navigate changing ties with others.

 

What Types of Relationships Are Important in Late Adulthood?

Social connection is the bedrock of a fulfilling life. And research shows that it’s important not only for your physical and mental health but also for a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life.

 

In late adulthood, meaningful relationships include your partner or spouse, children, grandchildren, and close friends. Let’s dive into each.

 

#1 Partner or Spouse

We live in a culture that tells us romance and dating should end when we reach a certain age.

 

But research tells us that love and intimacy are key components of a fulfilling life in late adulthood.

 

In fact, lack of intimacy and emotional connection are the main reason why many older married couples don’t feel valued in their marriages.

 

But what if you’re single (like most people over 65)? You may have lost your partner due to death or divorce, or maybe you’ve never been married at all.

 

That doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean you can’t experience meaningful connections and intimacy.

 

And in case you’re curious, on the topic of intimacy – it still matters for a lot of older adults. 40% of older Americans still have sex, while 54% of older couples still do it, according to a poll from the University of Michigan.

 

40% of older adults still have sex and 54% of older couples

 

All in all, creating new relationships or reviving old ones can help you find companionship, joy, and make life more meaningful.

 

#2 Children

As a parent, you’ve likely experienced the joys and struggles of watching your kids grow into adults. Going from infants to young adults, you expected the relationships with your children to change as they matured and grew into making their own decisions.

 

But it’s important to remember that changing relationships with your adult children in late adulthood continue, and they don’t necessarily have to be negative.

 

With the right boundaries, honest communication, and respect for evolving roles, these relationships can become a source of growth and understanding.

 

Research shows that parent-adult-child relationships are a two-way street. Support has to be extended from both ends in order for the relationship bond to remain strong. 

 

In fact, most adult children say their parents require their emotional support. And even more adults claim that for their children.

 

percentage of adult children who offer emotional support to their parents and vice versa

 

Maintaining healthy relationships with adult children in late adulthood is an important part of aging successfully and gracefully. It brings joy and a sense of purpose and allows for an intergenerational exchange of wisdom.

 

Which means it’s ever-important to put the effort into supporting the changing roles and dynamics with your adult kid relationships. 

 

The next generation also goes through its own evolution, bringing us to the next relationship type.

 

#3 Grandchildren

Grandchildren are often a source of joy in later life. Studies suggest that grandparents who are involved in their grandchildren’s lives experience more positive emotions and greater life satisfaction.

 

Plus, it turns out that those who have both children and grandchildren in their lives are the happiest.

 

life satisfaction of those with(out) living children and grandchildren

 

Which comes as no surprise, as there’s no greater feeling than knowing you are instrumental in positively impacting young minds and creating a strong bond between generations.

 

Being a grandparent gives you an opportunity to share your wisdom, life experiences, and values with your grandchildren.

 

But, unlike the relationship with your children, as the grandparent, you are mostly responsible for the closeness of your relationship. Research indicates that grandparent-grandchildren relationships are based more on the grandparent’s effort and emotional engagement.

 

We’d be remiss not to mention the importance of not interfering with your adult children’s parenting style. The last thing you want to do is create a familial separation because of disagreements on raising children. 

 

Which is pretty common these days – with discipline, meals and snacks, and screen time among the top disagreements. 

 

parents vs grandparents - the main disagreements on raising children:

 

In a nutshell, as the grandparent, it’s worth focusing on providing emotional support to both your grandchildren and children – and simply bolster the guidance your adult kids are offering their kids.

 

#4 Close Friends

Friends are important at every age, especially in late adulthood.

 

These strong ties with friends can provide a sense of belonging, comfort, and understanding. We don’t need to tell you that friendships provide a support system to help you weather difficult times, celebrate successes, and experience joy and contentment during life’s changing phases.

 

And while making new friends after 50 may be less convenient and require a bit of effort, there’s good news. Friendships usually get better with age. 

 

A 2011 study indicates that older adults:

 

  • experience more positive social interactions and higher levels of satisfaction
  • feel more supported by their close social ties
  • have less problematic relationships and experience less conflict overall

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Ultimately, the wisdom you’ve accumulated over the years translates into bettering your friendships and sets the foundation for meaningful camaraderie in late adulthood.

 

Now that we’ve covered the different types let’s dig into the various changes in relationships.

 

How Do Relationships Change With Age?

Changes in Romantic Relationships

Romantic relationships, of course, also undergo ebbs and flows in late adulthood, whether due to changing health, circumstances, or interests.

 

As it turns out, retirement can initially negatively impact your marriage — where there’s a rebalancing of household duties and division of labor that takes place. This is especially present if one spouse retires first

 

Unsurprisingly, the changing dynamics can cause marital tensions.

 

Which means it’s worth taking the time to talk openly and honestly with your partner about any new relationship shifts and set clear (and realistic) expectations for the future.

 

And, of course, older adult marriage isn’t the only romantic relationship that changes dynamic. Remarriage, divorce, and widowhood are included, too, with 20% of older adults having married twice and 5-10% marrying three or more times. 

 

image6  

 

As for losing a spouse, among adults over age 75, 58% of women and nearly 28% of men have been widowed. 

 

widowhood among older adults (75 and up)

 

Which makes for a big adjustment, to say the least. Coping with the loss of a spouse can be an intense challenge that would rock anyone’s world. 

 

For those who are single and ready to mingle (or perhaps enter the online dating world), here’s how older adults are meeting people to date. Most meet potential partners through mutual friends, and still 29% meet people out and about in public (a significant departure from the way millennials meet).

 

how older adults meet potential dates compared to millenials

 

All in all, romantic relationships are sure to change throughout retirement. No matter what, though, one tip may hold true throughout – focus on understanding each other’s changing needs and find ways to nurture your relationship in new and meaningful ways.  

 

Changes in Family Dynamics

Retirement is a time of life when family connections can become even more important. With the right approach, it can be a period of great joy and fulfillment as you and your loved ones embark on this new stage together.

 

But many older adults are facing unique challenges that make family relationships far more complicated. A 2013 study on family and retirement revealed two relationship trends:

 

  • Younger relatives increasingly need financial help, which strains the relationship
  • Older adults require greater support as they age, which puts an additional burden on adult children

 

Worrying about adult children leaves pre-retirees retiring later, returning to work, and sacrificing their lifestyle to provide for them financially. On the other hand, an increasing number need long-term care. And these changing dynamics can cause tension and even resentment.

 

What’s more, there’s the sad stat that 1 in 4 adults are estranged from their family, which of course, takes a mental and emotional toll.

 

As hard as it may be, sometimes it’s best to regroup and get into a (healthy) mindset of letting go of your grown child instead of enabling them

 

To be clear, that’s not to say this is a permanent rift in your relationship, nor an acceptance of a less-than-ideal relationship with your adult kids; it’s simply a breather from making things worse – to ground yourself and become better equipped to repair the bond.

 

In the end, it’ll ultimately help both you and your adult children develop the independence and resilience needed for a successful life. And it can help to protect the emotional bond between you and your children in the long term.

 

Changes in Friendships

Friendships are often changing and evolving throughout our lives. And in late adulthood, these changes can take on a new meaning.

 

As people age, it’s normal for friendships to become less frequent or even fade away altogether, simply because the connection is less convenient – whether it’s distance or time apart.

 

But even though late adulthood brings many changes, it doesn’t have to mean losing your social ties. 

 

A recent study on social ties before and after retirement found that inner and middle social ties don’t significantly decrease after retirement. So you don’t have to say goodbye to your close friends when you retire – it’s simply about being more intentional about your efforts. 

 

More specifically, take the time to explore activities and interests that bring you joy, find like-minded groups or organizations, or even check out Meetup groups and senior friendship sites to see if there are individuals who share your passions.

 

Our favorite tip – spend more energy and time with people in your Circle of Influence and far less with the people in your Circle of Concern.

 

be choosy with who you let in your circle of influence
Keep in mind that you need to be picky when it comes to expanding your social circle.

 

Ultimately, the changing dynamics of late adulthood relationships can lead to fresh opportunities for connection and the enriching of existing friendships. 

 

While 20% of adults over age 55 feel lonely a lot of the time, 83% feel it’s never too late in life to create fulfilling relationships in their later years, and another 52% of people want to focus on spending their time with friends and family.

 

The gist is — make the effort to deepen your social life. 

 

Remember to be gentle with yourself during this period of changing relationships, and show up as your authentic self (through self-care and self-love) as you make an effort to create new friendships and reconnect with old ones.

 

Changes in the Relationship With Yourself

While it sounds clichè, it’s clichè for a reason – the most important relationship is the one with yourself. The better you connect with yourself, the better you connect with others. 

 

As Brené Brown said:

 

“Connecting to yourself lets you approach people for genuine connection rather than approach people for validation.”

 

And as you age, your values and goals change.  Take the time to reflect on your life so far, so that you can have clarity on the person you want to become. 

 

After all, you’re designed to grow and change at every life stage. Retirement is no different. 

 

Sidenote: the fact that your brain is capable of neuroplasticity is a big signal that you’re meant to grow, develop, and learn new things for the rest of your life.

 

One effective way to connect more deeply with yourself is to self-reflect.

 

In fact, research suggests that self-reflection can help you develop a better understanding of yourself and your needs.

 

Reassess what you want from life, embrace new experiences, and find joy in the small moments. Start with our finding clarity workbook to explore your values and goals and further connect to your authentic self.

 

Embrace the Changing Relationships in Late Adulthood 

Aging is a natural process of life, and changing relationships in late adulthood are simply part of this journey.

 

It often requires bravery to embrace new beginnings, cultivate empathy, and take the time to understand your ever-evolving needs alongside your relationships’ needs.

 

Remember that even though late adulthood brings many changes in relationships, it’s worth putting in the effort to nourish your sense of community and connection with others, especially for the sake of avoiding loneliness or isolation

 

Here’s the gist of changing relationships in late adulthood. Changes in:

 

  • Romantic relationships — talk openly and honestly with your partner about any changing relationships and set realistic expectations for the future
  • Family dynamics — keep communication channels open and focus on understanding each other’s needs
  • Friendships — explore activities and interests that bring you joy, find like-minded groups or organizations, and reconnect with old friendships
  • The relationship with yourself — take the time to reflect on your life and reassess your values and goals

 

No matter what stage of life you’re in, it’s worth investing in your relationships. Make an effort to open yourself up to new possibilities and cherish shared moments with family, friends, and, most importantly — yourself. 

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