Empathy, social ties, and well-being in late life




Huo, Meng

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Older adults who have stronger social ties often lead longer, happier and healthier lives. It is crucial to examine what factors may underlie these stronger ties. Human bonding relies on continuous awareness and response to others’ emotions. Thus, individual differences in empathy, the ability to share and understand others’ thoughts and feelings, may explain variability in older adults’ social lives and well-being. I drew on data from the Daily Experiences and Well-being Study, where adults aged 65+ reported on their empathy and background characteristics and listed their social partners (close family and friends). Older adults participated in intensive daily data collection for 5 to 6 days. They indicated encounters with social partners and mood every 3 hours each day and support exchanges (e.g., emotional, practical, advice) at the end of each day. Study 1 examined older adults’ empathy and their overall social networks. Multiple regressions showed that more empathic older adults did not have larger networks but they engaged in support exchanges with a greater number of social partners and reported greater affection than less empathic older adults. Study 2 examined older adults’ empathy and daily support exchanges. Multilevel models revealed that more empathic older adults were more likely to provide each type of support and they found their helping behaviors more rewarding on a daily basis. Study 3 explored whether more empathic older adults were exposed to more social partners’ major life problems and suffered from interacting with these social partners throughout the day. Multilevel models found that more empathic older adults reported a greater number of social partners who incurred major life problems. Yet, being more empathic seemed to protect older adults’ well-being during encounters with these social partners. These studies identify a promising role that empathy plays in facilitating older adults’ social experiences and promoting their resilience in the face of stress. Understanding empathy in late life has the potential to shed light on future interventions targeting older adults who suffer isolation and who are at risk of health concerns.


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