Widowed elders have less stress living closer to children

August 16, 2005
Jared Wadley

ANN ARBOR—Living near your children enhances psychological well-being, but widowed elderly living with children may may find that their social life suffers, a new University of Michigan study showed.

Older adults reported significantly lower levels of psychological distress when their children lived within an hour’s drive, said Jung-Hwa Ha, a doctoral student in the U-M School of Social Work and co-author of "The Effect of Parent-Child Geographic Proximity on Widowed Parents’ Psychological Adjustment and Social Integration."

The study, co-written by Deborah Carr of Rutgers University, appears in the September issue of Research on Aging.

While geographic proximity is good for widowed parents, living in the same household with their children can be a detriment to their social integration, the research indicated. Parents who live with their children are less likely to be integrated into informal networks of friends, neighbors and relatives, Ha said.

"Living with adult children may create hassles in the parent-child relationship, yet it also brings important psychological benefits as older adults cope with widowhood," she said.

The researchers used data from the "Changing Lives of Older Couples" study, which compiled responses from 1,532 married individuals aged 65 and older. This bereavement study was conducted by U-M’s Institute for Social Research, the world’s largest academic survey and research institution. After the spouses’ death, participants were asked how frequently they had certain symptoms, such as depression, restless sleeping, loss of appetite and anxiety. Based on the parents’ residential status six months following the spousal loss, the study’s findings included:

Living with or near one’s adult children is associated with lower levels of psychological distress among bereaved elders, yet this protective effect is apparent only after parents’ perceptions of dependence on their children are taken into account. Parental well-being may be compromised if they feel overly dependent on their children.

Living with an adult child significantly decreases the amount of interaction a bereaved older adult has with friends, neighbors and relatives. One factor could be that older adults living with their children have more household responsibilities, such as caring for grandchildren, and may not have much free ti me to interact with people outside the immediate family.

Parent-child proximity did not affect despair and yearning, which involves the bereaved parent’s attachment to the deceased spouse.

"Our findings suggest that no one living arrangement is uniformly and unequivocally positive for bereaved older adults," Ha said.

Related links:

Research on Aging

School of Social Work

Changing Lives of Older Couples (CLOC) Study