Dr. Rachel Margolis shares new research on the well-being of older adults without close kin.
STUDY: Margolis, R., Chai, X., Verdery, A. M., & Newmyer, L. (December 2, 2021). The physical, mental, and social health of middle-aged and older adults without close kin in Canada. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, gbab222. DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbab222
March 8, 2022
Rachel Margolis, PhD
The population of unpartnered and childless older adults – sometimes known as “kinless” adults or “adults without close kin” – continues to grow around the globe. Much remains unknown, however, about how their life circumstances affect their wellbeing or the communities in which they live. This is particularly relevant in Canada, a country with one of the world’s highest rates of kinlessness (approximately 1 in 10 older adults).
In this study, researchers Rachel Margolis, PhD; Xiangnan Chai, PhD; Ashton M. Verdery, PhD; and Lauren Newmyer, MA use aging and social network modules from the Canadian General Social Survey, Cycle 21 to explore whether older adults without close kin are disadvantaged in terms of physical, mental, and social aspects of health.
The authors tap into a sample of 22,105 respondents, representative of Canadians ages 45 and older in 10 provinces. In the survey, participants rated their physical and mental health. Social health was measured by their feelings of loneliness, and the frequency of communicating with relatives and friends outside the household. Community involvement was measured by whether participants belonged to groups that meet regularly.
This research reveals several areas of concern for the wellbeing of adults without close kin in Canada, especially relating to physical and mental health and three aspects of social health (loneliness, civic participation, and interaction with friends and relatives).
Older adults without close kin report lower levels of health and wellbeing
Partners and children are the primary sources of support in older adulthood and, as such, their absence from the lives of older adults can have a glaring impact on physical, mental, and social health.
When compared with their counterparts who have a partner and children, older adults without close kin reported significantly lower levels of physical and mental health. The findings showed similar levels of physical and mental health between those adults without close kin and those who are unpartnered with children. Reported loneliness followed the same pattern. These findings may be partially due to their living arrangements, as adults living without a partner are most likely to be living alone.
Data also showed those without partners and children interacted less with relatives compared with other unpartnered adults who have children. “Even though we may think childless older adults may be just as connected to family, via nieces, nephews and cousins, our findings highlight that older adults without close kin are less connected with relatives overall than their counterparts with children,” Dr. Margolis said.
The study also examined differences in patterns of social communication and types of social connections between older adults with and without close kin. Beyond close family ties, the researchers looked at wider networks of friends as potential sources of emotional support. They found that participants without close kin more often interacted with friends compared with their counterparts who have partners and children. The results align with other research, showing that adults without close kin tend to report more friends as part of their social networks, who are sometimes a part of their “chosen family.”
This substitution, however, doesn’t fully make up for the differences in the gaps in physical and mental health and loneliness. Those without kin are still disadvantaged on these dimensions.
Among those without close kin, highly educated adults are less at risk
These patterns are particularly distinct for some groups. Although civic participation of adults without partners or children was significantly below those with closer kin, that held especially true for men. The researchers attributed that to numerous possibilities, including the possibility that men might simply be opting out of participating in formal civic organizations or perhaps women are more interested in substituting community involvement for social interaction with close kin. Researchers also left room for the fact that poor physical and mental health might prevent men from being more involved.
When it comes to education, the highly educated are less at risk when they lack family, as they interact with friends more often. According to Dr. Margolis, “This aligns with what we know about how social networks are structured differently for more and less educated individuals, on average. It’s the most highly educated who have a greater mix of family and friends in their networks, while, when it comes to important topics, less educated adults tend to keep their conversation partners more in the family.”
Study highlights importance of robust social networks in older age
This research highlights the importance of creating and maintaining social networks throughout our lives. Furthermore, it outlines areas where interventions would benefit this population. As we move forward in life, social networks naturally thin, and those without close kin are at a disadvantage in maintaining physical health, mental health, and connectedness. Creating pathways to regular interaction with their friends, chosen family, and/or other social connections benefits everyone.
Rachel Margolis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario and the lead author of this study.