Family communication in later life

Jake Harwood, Christine E. Rittenour, Mei Chen Lin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


The study of communication in older adulthood has grown exponentially in the past 20 years. From a small body of pioneering work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the field now boasts a large cadre of active researchers, numerous textbooks, courses at a large number of universities, and broad recognition as a valid area of study. Family is as central in older adulthood as any other period of the lifespan. Older adults are often recognized as grandparents and great-grandparents, but they are also parents, spouses, children, and even grandchildren. They are sometimes the stereotypical storehouses of family history and sage advice, but they communicate in a myriad of other ways within families. They are caregivers and care-recipients within families, but their contributions to family life extend beyond their roles in the caregiving process. In this chapter we discuss areas of family communication in later life in which there is research and theory. We begin with some broad coverage of the communication and aging literature so as to give context for the family-specific work. This discussion includes principles shared by most researchers in the area and widely used theories. Subsequently, the bulk of the chapter is organized by relationship, with sections on spouses, siblings, adult children, and grandchildren. We close with a section on elder abuse and some concluding comments. Three pieces of “set-up” are merited at the outset. First, researchers in this area are often asked “what counts” as old? Age is a continuum, and there is no clear demarcation for who is “old” and who is not. However, much of the research focuses on 65 as a convenient cut-off, and this chapter will do likewise. Second, the word “elderly” is used extensively to describe the populations we are addressing. As scholars concerned with communication processes, we avoid this word. It has strong associations with frailty, dependency, and illness, and is subject to the depersonalizing, homogenizing article (“the elderly”). As a result, we use (and recommend) the terms “older people” or “older adults,” or more specific descriptors (e.g., “65-to 75-year-olds”). Third, different cultures place different values on aging, have diverse family structures within which older people are embedded, and consider family cohabitation differently. In this chapter, we attempt to incorporate such cultural concerns. However, we cannot do full justice to cultural issues given space limitations, and the fact that most research is from North America and Northern Europe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Family Communication
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781136946370
ISBN (Print)9780415881982
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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