A growing body of research suggests that strong social ties may promote a sense of well-being and support successful aging in older adults. A recent study examined the relationship between empathy (the ability to put oneself in the place of others and understand their emotions and experiences) and the strength and quality of close social ties in older adults.
This study used data collected from 333 participants age 65 and better as part of the Daily Experiences and Well-Being Study. The purpose of the study was to explore how empathy in older adults was associated with the size and nature of their social networks, the level of support and frequency of contact with loved ones, and the quality of their social relationships.
In order to measure empathy, participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement to statements such as, “I often have tender and concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” and “Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.” Participants were also asked to identify key social partners such as a friend or relative in their lives, the degree of emotional closeness they felt with those people, the type of support they received from and provided to their loved ones, and the extent to which they shared their private feelings and concerns with others.
Overall, participants were in contact with approximately one-third of their social partners at least a few times each month. They also provided and received emotional and physical support from about four to five of their partners. Interestingly, although being empathic was not associated with the size of one’s social network, this study found that older adults who were more empathic provided and received support from more social partners than less empathic older adults. Those who were more empathic also had more social interactions and reported more positive feelings for their loved ones such as a spouse or an adult child.
These findings suggest that the ability to listen, understand, and emotionally connect and communicate with others may improve the quality of close social ties and experiences in late life and ultimately enhance a sense of well-being in older adults.
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SOURCE: Huo, M., Fuentecilla, J. L., Birditt, K. S., & Fingerman, K. L. (2020). Empathy and Close Social Ties in Late Life. The Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 75(8), 1648–1657. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbz044