Couples’ Social Careers in Assisted Living: Reconciling Individual and Shared Situations

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Purpose of the Study:

Despite important connections between relationships, health, and well-being, little is known about later-life couples’ daily lives and experiences, especially those who are frail. Our aim was to advance knowledge by gaining an in-depth understanding of married and unmarried couples’ intimate and social relationships in assisted living (AL) and by generating an explanatory theory.

Design and Methods:

Using Grounded Theory Methods, we build on past research and analyze qualitative data from a 3-year mixed-methods study set in eight diverse AL settings located in the state of Georgia. Data collection included participant observation and informal and formal interviews yielding information on 29 couples, 26 married and 3 unmarried.


Defined by their relationships with one another and those around them, couples’ experiences were variable and involved a process of reconciling individual and shared situations. Analysis affirms and expands an existing typology of couples in AL. Our conceptual model illustrates the multilevel factors influencing the reconciliation process and leading to variation. Findings highlight the strengths and burdens of late-life couplehood and have implications for understanding these intimate ties beyond AL.


Intimate and social relationships remain significant in later life. Strategies aimed at supporting couples should focus on individual and shared situations, particularly as couples’ experience physical and cognitive decline across time.

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