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Older age…the Autumn of life

By Shannon Gostelow

(Provisional Psychologist, supervised by Julie Crabtree, Lyn Worsley and Sylvia Ruocco)

 

JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Nelson Mandela, Sir Robert Menzies.

Sputnik, the Moon landing…

‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Peanuts’ comic strip.

Melbourne Olympics, ARPANET.

Invention of colour television AND remote…

 

Do I have your attention?

…it might be because you are over 65 years old…and the above people, events and technological advances lived or occurred somewhere in your lifetime.

(I may have lost a demographic or so around the ‘Peanuts’ reference and probably just in the time it takes you to read this blog technology will have whirled ahead so fast that Generation Y will go… “What’s a remote?” whilst feverishly waving their arms around in the air in order to change the tv channel…)

So, slightly older adults who fondly recall ‘soon to be outdated devices’ such as tv remotes, these statistics might also pique your interest…and possibly gain the attention of your younger counterparts…

  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 1 in 4 Australians will be over 65 by the year 2056.
  • The fastest growing age group in the world are the ‘oldest old’ or those aged 80 years and older (UNPD, 2002).

So there are a lot of you… And you are growing fast…

With these statistics in mind, and as older adulthood both is and will be personally significant to a large number of us, it is pertinent to reflect for a moment on some positive and even, dare I say it, beneficial aspects of ageing.

Firstly, advancing age is often synonymous with increasing wisdom…but this conventional belief is not consistently supported in psychological research. Research actually suggests that those who are wiser may age more successfully and that age does not, in and of itself, create wisdom. However, one of the agreed upon multifaceted aspects of wisdom is emotional regulation, and this has been positively associated with ageing.

So…emotional regulation is a positive. Remember that.

Now just to momentarily digress…

It does have to be said that normal ageing does result in some degree of general cognitive decline. One area which gradually becomes more difficult is reasoning or deliberative decision-making. Using an autumnal metaphor one group of researchers described the decline of detailed and reasoned decision-making as akin to the green leaves of deciduous trees slowly withering and falling away (Peters, Hess, Vastfjall, & Auman, 2007).

HOWEVER… (this is in bold because of the noteworthy resourcefulness of ageing adults)…jumping back to emotional regulation… older adults simply limit the demands on the deep, considered decision-making processes by relying on and enhancing emotive processes instead. Decisions based on emotions are more efficient and closer at hand for older adults…so they are enhanced. It is like older adults automatically default to emotion-based decisions. The same group of researchers mentioned above furthered the seasonal imagery by likening the enhancement of emotion in decision-making to leaves turning yellow, orange and red in the Autumn i.e. bright and resilient.

One major theory called socioemotional selectivity theory (or SST for short) also asserts that social and emotional goals are favoured and focussed upon in older adulthood as a natural consequence of the perception of limited time left in life. Along with naturally gravitating toward emotional goals older adults display a marked avoidance of negative emotions and a preference for attending to positive emotions, a bias termed the positivity effect. Studies do overwhelmingly show that older adults tend to avoid negative emotional information with preference and better memory for emotionally positive faces, especially those expressing happiness in the form of a smile.

So to recap: older adults tend to have highly attuned emotional decision making skills and are motivated and able to enhance positivity and avoid negativity.

Sounds great to me.

In fact, if harnessed these natural psychological age changes may assist in building resilience against developing symptoms of some mental health disorders such as Depression in later life. An emotionally positive focus whilst relegating negativity to the back rows is a very beneficial process and seems to occur somewhat more naturally in older adulthood.

If you are not yet convinced of the benefits of relying on positive emotions in older adulthood and you are saying “What about if an important rational decision needs to be made free of emotion?”…Well, it is also evident that if a situational goal is deemed important enough, i.e. if the decision is important enough, the focus on emotional goals can be superseded in the short term by those elusive reasoned thinking processes! So reasoned, detailed thinking can make a comeback where necessary. Impressive.

It seems as though, when it comes to ageing, the phrase ‘you win some you lose some’ is fairly apt. Even though as humans we are not ‘evergreen’ trees and our leaves do fall eventually, the new and enabling colours of Autumn act as wonderful recompense. Along with needing to take it a little more slowly on the stairs (;), comes great experience and accumulated knowledge guided by a more emotionally positive outlook of the past, present and future. This is beneficial indeed. There is a lot to be gained from living or witnessing others live in the positive Autumn of life.

References

Carstensen, L. L., & Mikels, J. A. (2005). At the intersection of emotion and          cognition: Aging and the positivity effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14,117–121. Retrieved from             http://www.jstor.org/stable/20183003

Hess, T. M., & Ennis, G. E. (2011). Age Differences in the Effort and Costs Associated With Cognitive Activity, The Journals of Gerontology. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbr129

Meeks, T.W,& Jeste, D.V. (2009). Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview. Archives of General Psychiatry.  66(4):355-365.     doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.8

Peters, E., Hess, T.M., Vastfjall, D., & Auman, C. (2007). Adult age differences in dual information processes: implications for the role of affective and deliberative processes in older adults’ decision making. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(1):1–23.

Xing, C., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2006). Aiming at Happiness: How Motivation Affects Attention to and Memory for Emotional Images. Motivation and Emotion, 30:249–256, doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9032-y

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