Problem Relatives Could Spell Poor Health for Older Adults

As October rolls out, many Americans are beginning to brace themselves for the cacophony of holiday cheer in the form of pumpkin spice lattes, Hallmark collectible ornaments, and an influx of relatives.

Although we can’t choose our family, we can choose the other individuals we make merriment or melancholy with. When deciding who to invite to your holiday get-together this year, there is some useful research to keep in mind while drawing up your guest list—especially for older adults. Research has dubbed “ambivalent” and “problematic” relations to be the most deleterious type of social ties for bolstering health in older adults. More specifically, ambivalent relationships—think interactions with difficult adult children and emotionally unstable friends—have been found to negatively impact older adults’ functional health, while problematic relationships—think, annoying coworker who can’t take a hint—to be more closely tied to psychological health issues.

The researchers came to these conclusions by examining the impact of both ambivalent and problematic relationship types in a representative sample of 916 older adults from the general population. Analyses of the survey data revealed that negative events which transpired with wholly problematic social ties, in comparison to those that transpired with ambivalent social ties, were related to more functional health limitations as well as more avoidant and less conciliatory coping reactions, more robust and longer-lasting negative emotions, and lower perceived coping effectiveness.

As we all know, satisfying social relationships are an important part of the health and well-being of individuals of all ages. However, with age and the awareness of less time left on Earth, older adults are apt to be more acutely aware of their social ties and how those impact their health and vitality. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that older adults tend to have more supportive and positive ties in later life and fewer negative social ties than individuals in middle age. Which is good, since it appears there may be substantive negative health consequences for maintaining too many less-than-positive social ties in later life.

Although a challenge, older adults should take heed to the warning of research to minimize the number of ambivalent and problematic family members or friends they face over turkey and pie this year.


Rook KS, Luong G, Sorkin GH, et al. Ambivalent versus problematic social ties: implications for psychological health, functional health, and interpersonal coping. Psychology & Aging (2012); 27: 912–923.


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