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A human relationship is defined by the dictionary as “a state of affairs existing between those having relations or dealings of some kind.” As this general statement indicates, relationships can refer to a wide variety of human ties, from family or kinship networks to romantic attachments to business partnerships. Older adults may be involved in many different types of relationships.


Relationships and socialization

On the most basic level, relationships among people are necessary to make a human being fully human. From the writers of the Bible and the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome down through contemporary researchers in medicine and psychology, people have been aware that humans are social beings. Human infants are not only too weak to survive without food and shelter provided by adults, they will not develop language skills or the ability to relate to others emotionally if they are not nurtured by other humans during a critical period of early childhood. This aspect of human development was discovered in the course of studying so-called feral children—children who were abandoned in the wild to fend for themselves and who survived by living among animals rather than other humans. A French doctor who took in a feral child found wandering around the countryside near Toulouse in 1800 found that the boy, by then about 12, could not learn to speak more than a few words. The “wild boy” lived with the doctor and his housekeeper for several years before he showed that he had a capacity for relating to others emotionally.

Marital status of the population age 65 and over, by age group and sex, 2007
65 and over65–7475–8485 and over
Married includes married, spouse present; married, spouse absent; and
source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey,
Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2007
(Illustration by GGS Information Services. Cengage Learning,
Both sexes
Never married3.9%4.1%3.5%3.7%
Never married4.0%4.3%3.9%3.0%
Never married3.7%4.0%3.2%4.1%

The general process in which people learn the values, attitudes, and behaviors appropriate to their culture is called socialization. Socialization does not end with childhood but continues throughout a person's educational career and into adult life. For most of human history, the family has been the primary agent of socialization. Other institutions or groups that help to form humans include schools, religious institutions, legal systems and governments, peer groups, and the mass media. Seniors are influenced by these groups or institutions as well as younger adults.

Intimate relationships

Intimate relationships are those in which a person feels a sense of emotional or physical closeness or both with another person. Some intimate relationships are not chosen but develop when a person is born into a family capable of emotional intimacy. Other intimate relationships are matters of personal choice, such as friendships or sexual relationships. An intimate relationship may be either formal (recognized in law and announced to others through a public ceremony), such as marriages and civil unions; or it may be informal, as in close friendships.

Some people also experience their relationship with God or the divine as an intimate bond. There is a long tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Sufism (a mystical tradition within Islam) of religious poetry or prayer in which God (or Jesus for Christians) is addressed as a friend or lover. The Song of Solomon in the Old Testament is an example of this type of religious intimacy.

Other relationships

There are many types of interpersonal relationships that are not intimate in the usual sense but may nonetheless provide people with companionship and keep them from feeling lonely or isolated:

  • Workplace relationships. While some people are drawn to occupations in which they can work by themselves, others choose jobs in which they are part of a team or working group. People can derive a genuine sense of satisfaction from completing a project as part of a team. One reason seniors sometimes miss their job after retirement is the loss of participation in a working group. In some cases seniors can return to their workplace on a part-time basis as consultants or advisors to younger workers, while those who have worked in laboratories may continue to do research as part of a team on a part-time basis.
  • Communities of interest. Communities of interest are groups of people who share an interest in a particular activity or enthusiasm. Amateur musical or theatrical groups, the fans of a particular sports team, gardening clubs, and hobby enthusiasts are examples of communities of interest. Men in particular often form their friendships through activities shared with other men, as phrases like “fishing buddies” or “golf buddies” indicate.
  • Voluntary associations. Voluntary associations are groups of people who join together to accomplish a specific goal or purpose. They include political clubs, fraternal and service organizations, religious institutions, alumni associations of schools and colleges, reunions of military units, charitable groups, and similar organizations.
  • Virtual relationships. Seniors as well as younger adults are making use of the Internet to find and communicate with others who share their specific interests, or simply to chat online.
  • Neighbors. Although neighborhoods in the geographical sense are not as strong as they once were in most cities, neighbors are still an important source of companionship for many older adults. The Aging in Place movement, which helps seniors who do not want to relocate to stay in their homes as long as possible, notes that some entire neighborhoods consist of older adults who have aged as a group. These groups, which may consist of the residents of a single apartment building or a street of old single-family homes, are now called naturally occurring retirement communities or NORCs. About 27 percent of seniors in the United States live in NORCs as of the early 2000s, and many of them regard their neighbors as a significant source of companionship.
  • Relationships with animals. Many older adults, both those living with others and those living alone, enjoy the companionship of animals. Some active retirees enjoy volunteering with animal rescue groups. Pet therapy is an increasingly recognized treatment for depression in seniors, and more and more assisted living facilities are allowing residents to keep pets.


Changes in relationships

One of the disconcerting aspects of human relationships is that, while they provide a sense of security and stability in most people's lives, they also undergo change over time. A common example of change within a specific relationship is that between parent and child. A wise parent knows that the relationship will change as the infant becomes a toddler, an older child, an adolescent, and eventually an independent adult. As more time goes by, however, the adult child may become the parent's caregiver . This second phase of the parent/child relationship is often distressing to both members. Adult children may overlook the signs of aging in the parent because they still think of their father or mother as the “real grownup” who took care of them when they were younger. The parent, on the other hand, may not want to admit that he or she now needs help.

Older married couples also undergo change when one partner becomes incapacitated or otherwise needs care. The other spouse may feel very uncomfortable assuming the tasks that the husband or wife used to perform, not only because they may never have balanced the checkbook or done the laundry before, but also because they may feel they are hurting the spouse's feelings by taking over his or her activities.

As in other aspects of relationships, people vary in their ability to adjust to change; some seniors may become increasingly resistant to accepting changes in their relationships as they grow older. In some cases a counselor or therapist can be helpful in guiding a family or a married couple through the transitions in their relationships that are a normal part of life, upsetting though the changes may seem at the time they happen.


Community of interest —An academic or scholarly term for a group of people who share a common interest in an activity or purpose.

Feral child —A child who has survived from a young age without human contact.

Intimacy —A condition of emotional closeness and warmth in love and friendship. Intimacy within a given relationship may be emotional, physical, or both.

Loneliness —An internal feeling of hollowness or emptiness combined with a sense of being cut off from or estranged from other people. It can affect people who share a household with others as well as those who live alone.

Naturally occurring retirement community (NORC) —A community or neighborhood where the residents have grown older as neighbors.

Socialization —The process by which people learn the attitudes, values, and behaviors considered appropriate within their culture.

Solitude —The condition or situation of being apart from other people, whether short-term or long-term. It is often self-chosen for the sake of privacy or to rest or work undisturbed.


It is important to distinguish between solitude and loneliness. Solitude refers to being apart from others, whether for a short period of time or longer, and is usually self-chosen. A mature adult can benefit from periods of solitude as well as companionship with others; in fact, an inability to tolerate separation is as much of a problem in human relationships as not being able to get along with others. Relationships need a certain amount of “breathing space” for growth and vitality.

In contrast to solitude, loneliness is an emotional condition that may affect a person without regard to age or to his or her living situation. Loneliness is an internal sense of emptiness or hollowness, of feeling cut off and disconnected from others; it is stronger and more painful than a simple desire for the company of another person. An older adult may feel lonely even though he or she is sharing a household with others.

Seniors like other adults vary in the ways they balance solitude with interactions with others, as well as in the types of relationships they prefer. Some people have a greater need than others for solitude on the basis of temperament (the biological basis of personality), interests, or family history. For example, only children typically feel more comfortable being alone than people who grew up with siblings.

In addition, people have different levels of desire for emotional or physical intimacy. Some have a small circle of friends with whom they are extremely close while others have a large number of casual chums and acquaintances. Some people feel lost without a romantic or sexual relationship, while others find deep meaning in nonsexual friendships. Even within an extended family, different members vary in their need or desire for close contact with their relatives. There is no one-size-fits-all pattern for relationships for older adults; the most important criterion for emotional and spiritual health is the senior's contentment with and commitment to the important relationships in his or her life.



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American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 801, New York, NY, 10118, (212) 308-1414, (212) 832-8646, [email protected],

Delta Society, 875 124th Avenue NE, Suite 101, Bellevue, WA, 98005, (425) 679-5500, (425) 679-5539, [email protected],

Institute for Religion and Health (IRH), 8100 Greenbriar, Ste. 220, Houston, TX, 77054, (713) 797-0600, jdoctor,

National Aging in Place Council (NAIPC), 1400 16th Street NW, Suite 420, Washington, DC, 20036, 202.939.1784, 202.265.4435, [email protected],

One Plus One Marriage and Partnership Research, 1 Benjamin Street, London, United Kingdom, EC1M 5QG, +44 (0)20 7553 9530, +44 (0)20 7553 9550, info@,

Rebecca J. Frey Ph.D.

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