Aging in Family and Marriage

People in society have a longer life-span now than ever before in the history of man.  The population of old people and “old old” people are increasing every year making a four generation family – consisting of children, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents – the norm in society.

In the late 19th century the amount of people in their senior years (i.e. 65 years old and above), given a total population of 23.2 million people was 600,000 which increased tremendously in the 20th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the amount of old people were at 3.1 million given a population of 76,000,000 and in 1975, with a population of 235,000,000, there were 21.8 million senior citizens in society, making it an 8 percent increase in old people in a span of 75 years.

With that percentage growth, there are definitely more “old old” people currently in society and it cannot be doubted that the amount of “old old” people affects society in numerous ways.   For this study, the effect of the aging population on the most basic institution of society will be discussed – the family.

Aging definitely affects people’s lives and proportionally affects the lives of the people around those who are aging.  Since the family is the basic unit of society, the effect of aging on the family and the changes that occur in that social unit because of aging will be discussed.

When we speak of family, this entails the relationships between parent and child as well as husband and wife. Aging has an impact on these relationships that cannot be ignored by the rest of society as the family represents the foundation of society and thus if any changes occur within that framework then it cannot be questioned that these changes influence the dynamics that transpire with the society as a whole.

Aging and the Family

According to Andre Cherline (1983), historically, old people continued to hold the power and authority over the family until the day they died.  This was the case mainly because it was the elders who had ownership of all the properties and resources of that family, which the heir will only be able to handle the moment the patriarch of that family has bequeathed his possession in a will, after his death.

Thus, older people were normally respected and feared by the younger generation albeit not loved. (7)   This is especially true since it is in itself an accomplishment to grow old because to be old at that time would mean that the person has survived all the diseases in a time when medicine was not at all as advanced as it is today.

Although an accomplishment, it creates resentment in the younger generation especially if the younger generation has reached adulthood since the old man controls the family’s resources, the adult child had to be dependent on the old man until such time that he passes away.

This no longer holds true in this day and age.  Familial relations are not as feudalistic as it used to be during colonial times.  The dynamics of the family are no longer such that the parent has full control of the resources of the family.

Although, parents may have possessions that they accumulated throughout the years of hard work that they may want to bequeath to their children, the financial stability of the children are no longer fully dependent on these resources as they can independently work for their own wages and accumulate their own wealth

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apart from that of their parents.

However, the presence of old people poses a problem of idleness wherein they are “too old to work but too young to die” (Freedman, 1999).  In 1952, insurance companies decided that the best way to care for the elderly was to insure them with pension upon retirement.

The marketing ploy was to make retirement a leisure trip – no kids, no responsibilities, no worries – which they coined the “Golden Years.”

Due to this, most elderly people availed of a pension plan making them absolutely independent of their children while enjoying the rest of their life in comfort and leisure.

(1)  Given this independence of each other, the relationship between adult child and parent are normally more favorable than during the colonial times, wherein the parent and child may develop a more emotionally satisfying relationship which is warm, close and affectionate. (Cherline, p.8)

This, however, does not hold true for the elderly who are dependent on their children for financial support.  It is common that the parent had spent all their income for the upbringing and education of their children and so upon retirement there are financially incapable of supporting themselves or even enjoying the “Golden Years.”

In cases like these, the relationship between parent and child may be tense and the dynamics of the family of the adult child will have to change and adjust itself to the presence of the elderly parent.

The strain or benefit that the elderly parent will cause to its adult child may differ per situation.  First, assuming that the adult child has his own family, the strain may be caused by the elderly parent’s relationship with the in-law.

Depending on how intrusive the elderly parent is, his presence will cause a strain in the marriage of his adult children.  Apart from the possible abrasive nature of the elderly parent, the strain may originate from the extra expense in caring for the elderly parent as well.

Assuming that the adult child is divorced the strain in the parent-child relationship maybe greater.  Divorce in itself is a very traumatic experience for those involved in the process and so the divorcee is normally both emotionally sensitive and financially unstable.

The strain with the elder parent can come in two forms: the disapproval of the elder parent of the divorce and the expense of caring for an elder parent in a situation when finances, due to the divorce, are extremely tight.  (15)

However, the presence of an elder parent in a newly divorced adult child can also have benefits which can strengthen the relationship between the parent and the adult child.

The adult child may find his/her emotional support from the present parent as well as help the adult-child in caring for the children, household and finances (granted that the elder parent is financially able).  (16)

 Whatever the case maybe, it is through the relations of the elderly with their family that the elderly are able to maintain their social identity.  (18)  Through their connections to their family – with their children, with their grand children and great-grandchildren – the elderly find purpose and meaning to an otherwise “purposeless” aging existence when they cannot work and contribute to the society or are too young to die.

By providing the emotional support for their children their relationship are strengthened.  Through the caring and sharing in the raising and upbringing of the grandchildren, their contributions to the welfare of the children’s disposition ultimately contributes to the well-being of society.

Although, these relationships may not be always peachy, the contribution and influence over their children and their grandchildren is apparent and allows them to continue to become a function of society.

Aging and Marriage

In marriage, aging has a very direct consequence and influence.  Assuming that both partners are still alive, the interaction of the spouses within their relationship change proportionately with their age because of their emotional maturity as well as deteriorating physical health.

In terms of physical health, physiological complication causes the deterioration of physical intimacy within an elderly couple.  Both the ovarian function in females and the testicular function in males deteriorate as they age.

Apart from these physiological changes, psychological changes occur as well.  Especially for men, the inability to sexually perform, the loss of the role of leader and breadwinner, and the extra time to notice everything else may cause depression.  Thus, there is a greater need for emotional support, affirmation, acceptance and trust from the spouse.  (Metz, 1998)

As a result of these needs and the compensation for the lack of physical intimacy, elderly couples claim that they have a better relationship with their spouses as they now consider them their best friends.  (Appleton & Bohm, 2001) (Fahey, 2001).

As Appleton & Bohm succinctly puts it (2001), elder couples have relationships where “myths dissipate, reality sets in and marital identity takes hold. Communication patterns solidify, knowledge expands and reliance on collaborative-cooperative styles of dispute resolution increases.”

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