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So, slightly older adults who fondly recall ‘soon to be outdated devices’ such as tv remotes, these statistics might also pique your interest…and possibly gain the attention of your younger counterparts…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


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

Will I ever get it all done?!? … some tips for improving your organisational skills

By Ruth Fordyce
Alpha Psychology and the Resilience Centre

In my work with clients experiencing anxiety or any sort of stress, a topic that often comes up is the feeling of being overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done. Whether it’s schoolwork, the household chores, work tasks, or juggling the endless array of family events and social catch ups, it’s likely that you sometimes feel like there are not enough hours in the day. However, this is a feeling that can escalate, causing you to panic, avoid tasks or people, and then criticize yourself for letting things get out of hand. This of course saps all your motivation and leads you further into the problem. Disorganisation is a common problem, so let’s look at some reasons why this might be so.

Why do I find it so hard to be organised?

Our lifestyle in most Western cultures today is extremely complex. Our brains struggle to keep up with this level of constant information-gathering and decision-making. Consider the way in which humans have lived for thousands of years (and still do in many countries) – daily life was comprised of fairly simple and repetitive routines, and often choices were quite limited. For example, deciding what to eat was mostly based on which foods were available. What a contrast to the experience of grocery shopping and wandering past literally thousands of products trying to decide what you need or want! Why write a grocery list? Because most of us struggle to remember 10, 20 or 30 different items, especially if some of them are unusual (it’s easier to remember standard items like bread or milk that we buy every week). And yet in other contexts, we often expect our brains to remember a vast number of things we need to do, people we need to call, and so on. If you have been kicking yourself for forgetting things, you might need to cut your brain some slack!

A second reason to consider is personality style. A number of well-researched personality questionnaires (for example, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) include a dimension of personality that relates to organisation and decision-making. Some people have a natural desire for order and completion and they tend to develop their own habits for keeping their space neat and tidy, remembering jobs they need to do, and so on. Some people are differently wired and tend to prefer flexibility and spontaneity. They may find it harder to plan and organise as it does not feel as ‘natural’ for them. If this is you, do keep in mind that there are many assets to being a flexible person! For example, you probably cope much better with interruptions and last minute changes to plans, than do your highly organised friends. However, you might also find it helpful to learn a few habits that can help you be organised, when and where it’s really needed.

There are two main areas of organisation that many people struggle with – organising their time and organising their space (or more specifically, the constant array of ‘stuff’ that comes into that space, be it your home, office, car etc).

Organising your time

The first step is to develop a good system for remembering all the things you need to get done. Given the above information, it’s important to stop relying on your brain to keep track of all your commitments and tasks. Find a way to keep an external record, so that you are no longer relying on your memory to keep prompting you (which often fails, and can be exhausting). Time management expert David Allen speaks of the importance of ‘emptying your head’ as the first necessary step to getting things done effectively and efficiently. Here are some examples of an external system:
– a simple to-do list written on paper
– an editable to-list (for example, a Word document on your computer), which enables you to easily move things around as priorities change
– using your smart phone – either a specific app or entering tasks into your calendar along with alerts/reminders (an incredibly useful feature!)
– post it notes, placed so as to remind you
Now I’m sure you have heard this tip before but I believe there are a couple of further steps to ensure that a ‘to-do’ list actually helps you. The first is to use a method that resonates with you. If you are practically attached to your smart phone, then an app may be helpful. But if you are a traditional pen and paper person, feel free to stick with that. It is much more likely to work for you.
Secondly, the real key with any system is that you need to refer to it regularly. This is where most people fall down. Make a habit to check in with your list on a regular basis. For most of us, this would be each day. Perhaps look at your list while you eat breakfast or have your morning coffee. Another idea could be to review it at the end of the day, and make a note in your diary/calendar/phone of a couple of things you can achieve the following day.

If you are following this approach but still regularly find that you are missing deadlines or running out of time to do things that you consider important, you may need to take stock and assess all your commitments. There are three main possibilities:
1. You have taken on too much – some tasks will need to go. Be realistic about what you can achieve. While it’s hard in the short term to say no or pull out of a commitment, you will feel so much better in the long run without the constant guilt of unfinished tasks hanging over your head.
2. You are taking too long on some tasks – you will need to speed up (this is often an issue for perfectionists). Try to identify some tasks where you can simplify or streamline things a bit, and save your time for the tasks that really need your best effort.
3. You are wasting time on other things instead of focusing on what needs to be done. Let’s face it, this is a struggle for all of us. Self-discipline is not easy! If you find that you procrastinate a lot, Andrew’s blog on this topic may be useful.

Organising your space

Professional organiser Lissanne Oliver has shaped my thinking greatly in this area and I highly recommend her book (see below). I’m sure you have heard the saying “a place for everything, and everything in its place”. Simple and yet hard to achieve! Here are some ideas for actually living by this principle:
– When you bring something into your home, think about where it should be stored, and put it there as soon as possible.
– Try to put things away as soon as you have finished using them. Small amounts of tidying on a regular basis are much less exhausting and overwhelming than having to do a big clean up.
– Consider also a place for things that come and go a lot – a dish or a shelf for your keys and mobile phone, a spot for mail that needs to be opened or bills that need to be paid. These are things that often get lost, or that clutter up the dining table, because we haven’t ever designated a proper spot to store them.
– If your home is bursting at the seams with ‘stuff’, here is an interesting rule for thinking through whether to keep something: Do you use it regularly? Is it beautiful? Is it of great sentimental value? If the answer to all three questions is no, then have a think about why are you hanging on to it!
– Recognise that you will regularly need to make time to cull your stuff and throw things away. This is especially true in regards to the endless variety of paperwork that comes into our homes every week – newspapers, bills, catalogues, school notes, and so on. I love Lissanne Oliver’s suggestion to open your mail right next to your bin so you can immediately throw away all the unwanted items. Developing small habits like this can save you a lot of time and effort in the long run.

Again, sticking to these strategies requires discipline, especially at first. But the pay off can be far reaching – whether you’re hoping to have a more restful and clutter-free home, be ready for tax time – or simply remember where the car keys are! What can you get started on today?

Ruth Fordyce is a Registered Psychologist at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre. Find out more about Ruth by clicking here.

For further reading

Getting Things Done by David Allen
See his website http://www.davidco.com for further information and a range of free tools and resources.
Sorted! The ultimate guide to organising your life – once and for all by Lissanne Oliver
See her website http://sorted.net.au for further information.