Many of us fear getting old. We associate ageing with physical frailty, mental decline and social isolation. And we worry about the costs and consequences of taking care of an ageing society - over 20 per cent of the population is over 60, with a particular increase in the number aged 80 and over, and this trend is expected to continue (1) (2).
But Positive Psychology shows us that this bleak picture of ageing could be very misleading. Recent research has revealed two powerful and heartening messages that could have important consequences for older people - especially if we can find a way to put them at the heart of social policies that support them as they continue to grow.
The first of these messages is that happiness does not have to diminish in old age. In fact, the reverse is true. The 'U-shaped curve' of happiness shows that well-being reaches its lowest in the mid-to-late forties and then climbs steadily thereafter (3). A physically fit seventy-year-old is on average as happy as someone of twenty (4), and ageing is a positive experience for the majority of people (5).
The other good news is that the picture of change in old age is more complex than we think – and there is a lot that people can do to take more control of it. Many people believe that mental decline is inevitable, for example. But in fact, research shows that providing training for older people in reasoning, memory and speed can lead to significant improvements in all three (6). It also turns out that we can do a lot to slow the rate of physical decline in old age. One study created an exercise regime for nursing home residents whose average age was 87 – the results showed over 100 per cent improvement in muscle strength, and also significant growth in walking speed, stair power and overall levels of activity (7).
Furthermore, research shows that mental, physical and emotional welfare are all linked with each other. Training in cognitive reasoning does not just increase that faculty, but it also increases older people's feeling of comfort in their ability to cope with the difficulties of their day-to-day life (8). And greater cognitive function is also associated with psychological well-being (9).
Paul Baltes, a Positive Psychologist who specialises in the study of wisdom, has proposed the theory that some of the perceived loss of mental function in old age is due to the fact that people divert more attention to maintaining control of their physical environment as they become more frail. Older people might be sharper and more alert in a space that's easier for them to use. In addition, his research suggests that an engaged and active lifestyle in old age may reduce cognitive decline (10).
Furthermore, some valuable qualities actually grow with age. The character strengths of curiosity, love of learning, fairness, forgiveness and self-regulation all increase with age (11), as does environmental mastery, an important component of the wider concept of psychological well-being that measures how people find meaning in life (12). The latter study also found that people achieve a closer fit between their ideals in life and their self-images as they age. In addition, older people pursue their goals more intensively than their younger counterparts, even when the results are adjusted to take account for the fact that they have more time free (10).
Sadly, it is not the case that wisdom increases with age, as popular accounts suggest. But many of the activities that people undertake in older age can lead to the development of greater wisdom, and wisdom can also be increased through mental exercises, in a similar way to the exercises that can be done to improve mental function. And people of all ages value the wisdom of the elderly and wish to have older people as trusted advisors. (10)
Based on this and other research, an increasing number of gerontologists are taking a new attitude to the care of older people. Rather than assuming that decline is the only possibility for ageing, they conclude instead that there remains real potential for psychological growth (13).
So there is much cause for optimism. But it would be wrong to paint an entirely rosy picture. People do face difficulties as they age. As well as the loss of faculties discussed above, these also include isolation, financial hardship, reduced autonomy and social exclusion (14). In particular, many older people are not mobile and are therefore more dependent on local social interaction to maintain their wellbeing (15). Personal relationships and being part of a community are both critical to well-being during old age (16) (14).
For further information on the difficulties associated with ageing well go to Professor Mary Gilhooley's presentation.
(1) National Service Framework for Older People, London (2001): Department of Health
(2) Census 2001: First Results for England and Wales, London: Office for National Statistics
(3) Blanchflower, D. & Oswald, A. (2007), Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? National Bureau of Economic Research working paper 12935.
(4) Andrew Oswald in Guardian interview, 29 January 2008
(5) Banks, J., Breeze, E., Lessof, C. & Nazroo, J. (2006). Retirement, health and relationships of the older population in England: The 2004 English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (Wave 2).
(6) Ball, K., Berch, D.B., Helmers, K.F., Jobe, J.B., Leveck, M.D., Marsiske, M., Morris, J.N., Rebok, G.W., Smith, D.M., Tennstedt, S.L., Unverzagt, F.W. & Willis, S.L. (2002). Effects of Cognitive Training Interventions With Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 288, 2271 – 2281.
(7) Bassey., E.J. (1997). Physical capabilities, exercise and ageing. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology, 7(4), 289 – 297.
(8) Willis, S.L., Tennstedt, S.L., Marsiske, M., Ball, K., Elias, J., Mann Koepke, K., Morris, J.N., Rebok, G.W., Unverzagt, F.W., Stoddard, A.M. & Wright, E. (2006). Long-term effects of cognitive training on everyday functional outcomes in older adults: The ACTIVE Study. Journal of the American Medical Association, 296, 2805-2814.
(9) SN 5172 -English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA); Wave 1, 2002-2003: Teaching Dataset
(10) Center for Lifespan Psychology annual report 2003 - 2004.
(11) Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Wood, A. M., Harrington, S., Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2007). Character strengths in the United Kingdom - The VIA inventory of strengths.Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 341-351.
(12) Ryff, C.D. (1991). Possible selves in adulthood and old age: A tale of shifting horizons.Psychology and Aging, 6(2), 286 – 296.
(13) Bearon, L. (1996). Successful aging: What does 'the good life' look like? Concepts in Gerontology, Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 3(1).
(14) Milne, A, Hatzidimitriadou, E. & Wiseman, J. (2007). Health and quality of life among older people in rural England: Exploring the impact and efficacy of policy. Journal of Social Policy, 36(3),477 – 495.
(15) Help the Aged (2004), Quality of Life in Older Age: Messages from the Growing Older Programme, London: Help the Aged
(16) Netuveli, G., Wiggins, R.D., Hildon, Z., Montgomery, S.M. & Blane, D. (2006). Quality of life at older ages: evidence from the English longitudinal study of aging (wave 1). Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 60, 357-363.