Do age differences in close and problematic family ties reflect the pool of available relatives?

Older adults consistently report having fewer close and fewer problematic social ties than do younger adults. Yet, prior studies have not explicitly examined associations between the availability of living relatives and the nature of family ties in later life. One hundred sixty-four individuals ages 13 to 99 described their networks of close and problematic social ties. Then they provided information about specific living relatives (e.g., spouse, mother, father, sons, daughters, siblings, grandparents, and grandchildren). Older individuals reported more living relatives than did adolescents or young adults. Although individuals of all ages tended to name the majority of living relatives as close social contacts, most adults did not name all available relatives as close contacts. Age differences emerged with regard to naming relatives as problematic social ties. Older adults were less likely to indicate that their relatives caused problems. Findings are discussed in terms of an extension of investment theory, the availability hypothesis, which suggests that individuals with few living relatives are likely to view more of these relatives as close ties and fewer of these relatives as problematic.