Photo by Candida.Performa, Flickr CC

As the United States ages, more and more older adults are adjusting to the lifestyle changes that coincide with changing work and family roles, limited mobility, and chronic health conditions. For older adults who are married, cohabiting, or in another type of long-term relationship, this means that many of these relationships will include a partner who is living with a long-term disability or other impairment. In recent research, Deborah Carr, Jennifer Cornman, and Vicki Freedman investigate how intimate relationships affect the ways people experience disability, finding that support and strain in relationships affects the emotions of men and women in strikingly different ways.

The authors used data from the 2013 Disability and Use of Time supplement to a longitudinal study, which included over 1,100 adults over the age of 60 who were married, cohabiting, or in a romantic relationship. Researchers used 6,603 activity reports from time diaries in the supplement to analyze feelings of happiness, calm, frustration, sadness, and worry. They broke down the results by gender, presence of a disability (43% of the sample), and level of impairment. 

The study found that support from partners buffered negative emotions for women and men with low levels of impairment. Support was especially beneficial for the most highly-impaired women. In a marked contrast, however, support increased all four negative emotions in highly-impaired men. These men also responded to relationship strain with negative emotions, while the effects of strain were negligible for other men and all women. The researchers suggest that these findings point to gendered attitudes about independence. While women may understand support as a way to maintain autonomy, highly-impaired men may feel that both criticism and support threaten their independence and competence. These findings provide insight into the experiences of the older disabled and their caregivers, while also contributing to our understanding of how gender has important effects in all stages of life.