It’s A Family Affair: Reflections About Aging and Health Within a Family Context

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One’s health and aging cannot be uncoupled from the family system in which it occurs. Not only do families provide genetic material that determines major health risks and outcomes, families also share a culture, environment, and lifestyle that further influence health and aging trajectories. As well, family members are interconnected, so that an illness or a positive lifestyle change in one person can have reverberating effects on the health and well-being of others in the family system. This essay explores how families have the potential to both promote and threaten individual health and well-being, thereby influencing how an individual might age or experience later life. Weaving together personal biographies from three different authors, this essay provides specific examples of how the family affects the health and aging of individuals and how the health and aging of individuals affect the larger family unit. These dynamic processes have the potential to positively or negatively shape individual experiences of health and aging, even among those persons who are not yet in late life. This essay blends a developmental life course perspective with a dynamic family-systems approach to show how families engage in collaborative efforts throughout the life course, in which they both affect and are affected by the diagnosis and management of chronic diseases and the adoption of health promoting behaviors. Applying this perspective to the study of health and aging calls for interdisciplinary thinking, as well as novel methodological and quantitative solutions.

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