Does Empathy Have a Cost? Older Adults and Social Partners Experiencing Problems

Background and Objectives:

Empathy underlies older adults' awareness and responses to their social partners' needs, but it is unclear whether such awareness is beneficial or harmful to older adults' well-being. We examined whether older adults' empathy was associated with having encounters with social partners incurring problems and their own well-being throughout the day.

Research Design and Methods:

Participants were adults aged more than 65 years from the Daily Experiences and Well-being Study. These older adults (n = 313) rated empathy and indicated social partners' problems (e.g., health, emotional, and financial problems) in a baseline interview. They also reported encounters with social partners and their mood every 3 hr over 5-6 days.


Multiple regressions showed that more empathic older adults reported a greater proportion of social partners with major life problems than less empathic older adults. Older adults' empathy was not associated with their contact or negative encounters with social partners experiencing problems. Multilevel models revealed that encounters with these social partners had negative consequences for older adults' mood throughout the day; however, these consequences were reduced in more empathic older adults.

Discussion and Implications:

This study emphasizes the importance of empathy in late life and refines our understanding of older adults' social lives and well-being. Findings carry implications for interventions that aim to protect older adults' well-being when their close others incur crises.