By Janna Imel, M.S.
In thinking about successful aging, including anecdotal stories from older adults in my family and my research on emotional well-being in older adults, I realized I may be the only 24-year-old who is excited to enter older adulthood decades from now, as it is associated with perks younger adults do not report. The term “older adult” encompasses a vast array of people with unique experiences, personalities, and stories all over the age of 65. More often than not, society associates older adulthood with decline. It is true that older age can bring forth declines in health, the loss of close friends and family, and difficult transitions. However, one consistent research finding is that older age is linked to increased well-being and more positive affect in comparison to individuals in younger and middle adulthood (Gooding, Hurst, Johnson, & Tarrier, 2012). This blog is intended to counteract the deficit model of aging and focus on some positive aspects of growing older.
I have noticed that when speaking with my peers and younger adults about my decision to pursue a doctorate in geropsychology, I often get the responses, “Wow, that must be so sad” and “I don’t ever want to get old.” Media is notorious for portraying older adults as frail, helpless, and unable to be independent. Our society portrays being young and youthful as the best times of one’s life and old age as something bad. However, in my work with older adults, I find that they continue to dream and strive to enjoy life like the rest of us across the lifespan and oftentimes, do it with more success than younger counterparts. Below I outline two of the “successes” research has shown to come with older age:
As one becomes older, an important shift in goals begins to occur, as defined by the Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (Carstensen, 1999). Younger adults view time as vast and tend to prioritize future-oriented goals set to increase knowledge (e.g., choosing to move for a career opportunity over maintaining a friendship). Older adults differ in their view of time. Each passing year increases the sense of mortality and older adults begin to see time as more limited. A limited-time perspective ushers in more emotional goals like fostering close relationships and striving to be more connected to others. As such, older adults tend to partake in social contact that is emotionally rewarding rather than the emotionally meaningless chatter younger adults may sit through to open career opportunities. Pursuing meaningful relationships and having social connection can help individuals push through difficult times and find meaning in a time of transition to a different stage of life. So, rather than procrastinating writing your next manuscript by going on Facebook, give your grandma a call instead, because connecting with others and having meaningful relationships is likely important to her.
When compared to others across the lifespan, older adults self-report better emotional well-being and having more control over their emotions (Carstensen et al., 2011; Hay & Diehl, 2011; Lawton, Kleban, Rajagopal, & Dean, 1992). Additionally, they are able to look at the positives of past events no matter the outcome at the time the event occurred (Carstensen et al., 2011). For example, a failed romantic relationship at 27-years-old may cause frustration, sadness, and disappointment at the time. Fifty years later, this event is less likely to hold the same weight and the individual is likely to find positives in the event. This phenomenon is called the “positivity effect” as individuals label earlier, difficult life events as less negative in older age versus how they felt in real-time (Carstensen et al., 2011). Specifically, research shows that older adults tend to have better emotional regulation and can move past events in old age that would have been upsetting for them in their youth. In contrast, younger adults tend to display the opposite, experiencing more negative emotions and less control of these emotions (Gross et al., 1997). In thinking of the Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, the emotional regulation in older adulthood may occur given that the individual is emphasizing more emotion-related goals (e.g., If you feel you only have 5-10 years left to live, will an argument really stop you from talking to your loved one for weeks?).
When discussing aging, I believe it is imperative that we begin to change the aging discussion from a focus on deficits and consider the benefits of older age, two of which have been outlined in this post. In researching the topic of aging, I find myself examining my own life and wondering what lessons can be learned from old age. I have had the blessing of being close to both sets of my grandparents and other older adults in my life that I love. I am inspired by their ability to persevere through tough times and be resilient in the face of hardships, both emotional and physical. I also respect their desire to cultivate meaningful relationships, which drives me to try to embody this in my own relationships. As a graduate student, I find that social time is the first thing to be cut from my schedule when I’m busy. However, when I slow down for a moment, become mindful of those around me, and deliberately choose to spend time with those I cherish, the stress becomes more manageable. Maybe it takes sixty-five years or more for us to learn to appreciate people in our lives and learn to manage our emotions? Maybe it is older adulthood that forces individuals to pause and reflect, leading to better emotional well-being and positive affect? Or maybe these are things we can implement at any point in the lifespan and successful aging starts from childhood? Regardless, imagine what we can do if we learn to slow down and appreciate the beauty of life before old age. Instead of living busy from sunrise to sunset, maybe we should make time to reflect with the older adults we hold dear in our own lives and take a moment to truly listen.
1) Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54, 165-181.
2) Carstensen, L. L., Turan, B., Scheibe, S., Ram, N., Ersner-Hershfield, H., Samanez-Larkin, G. R., … & Nesselroade, J. R. (2011). Emotional experience improves with age: Evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychology and Aging, 26, 21-33.
3) Gooding, P. A., Hurst, A., Johnson, J., & Tarrier, N. (2012). Psychological resilience in young and older adults. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 27, 262-270.
4) Gross, J. J., Carstensen, L. L., Pasupathi, M., Tsai, J., Götestam Skorpen, C., & Hsu, A. Y. (1997). Emotion and aging: Experience, expression, and control. Psychology and Aging, 12, 590-599.
5) Hay, E. L., & Diehl, M. (2011). Emotion complexity and emotion regulation across adulthood. European Journal of Ageing, 8, 157-168.
6) Lawton, M. P., Kleban, M. H., Rajagopal, D., & Dean, J. (1992). Dimensions of affective experience in three age groups. Psychology and Aging, 7, 171-184.
About the Author
Janna is a proud Kentuckian from the Eastern Kentucky region. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Louisville in 2014. She is currently a third year student in the Counseling Psychology program at VCU. Her research interests include clinical geropsychology, behavioral sleep medicine in the elderly, primary care health and community engagement. Janna’s master’s thesis examined the the role of the positivity ratio in predicting subjective and objective sleep outcomes across the adult lifespan. Janna currently serves as a student representative for the OASIG.