Social Butterflies & Couch Potatoes: How Older Adults’ Health Is Affected by Their Partner’s Activities

Recent research examined the activities of older couples to understand the link between activities and health, with a focus on the relationship between partner activities and individuals’ health.

Using data from the longitudinal and nationally representative Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, researchers utilized a sample of over 1,500 couples living in the same household who participated between 2001 and 2015. At least one partner was 65 or older and each partner provided information on time spent in daily activities. Nine social and productive activities were examined: caregiving for disabled partner or relatives, caring for and playing with children, household errands, housework inside the home, housework outside the home, paid work, volunteering, physical activity, and participation in a club. The researchers looked at the association between activities reported at one point in time and health during the subsequent study period, which occurred an average of one year later. The analysis adjusted for health during the first timepoint so that initial health would not influence the study results.

Consistent with prior studies, individuals who were more active and community-engaged were more likely to report better health during the following survey. Caregiving for a disabled partner or relatives was associated with poorer health as compared to individuals who were community-engaged. Importantly, partner activity was also associated with health, explaining more about health than individual activities alone. Having a community-engaged partner was associated with better health for both men and women, though for women, the difference between having a community-engaged or inactive partner was small. However, women with employed partners were more likely to report poorer mental health.

The researchers did not investigate the reasons that partner activities were associated with respondent health. Based on prior research, the authors suggest that partner social networks are one mechanism through which health is affected. This appears to be especially true for men, who may rely more on their partner’s social ties. A central takeaway for practitioners is the value of considering the activities of partners to obtain a fuller picture of older adults’ activity engagement, needs, and constraints.



Lam J & Bolano D. Social and productive activities and health among partnered older adults: A couple-level analysis. Social Science & Medicine. (2019); May1 (229):126-33.


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