CHAPTER 18
Late Adulthood: Social and Emotional
Development
Theories of Social and Emotional
Development in Late Adulthood
Theories of Social and Emotional Development
in Late Adulthood
• Erikson’s psychosocial theory
– Eighth or final stage of life is called ego integrity or despair; he believed
people who achieved positive outcomes to an earlier life crisis would be
more likely to obtain ego integrity than despair in late adulthood
• Ego integrity versus despair
– Basic challenge is to maintain the belief that life is meaningful and
worthwhile in the face of physical decline and the inevitability of death;
ego integrity derives from wisdom, as well as from the acceptance of
one’s lifespan as being limited and occurring at a certain point in
history; adjustment in the later years requires wisdom to let go
Robert Peck’s Developmental Tasks
• Peck outlined three developmental tasks that people
face in late adulthood
– Ego differentiation versus work-role preoccupation
– Body transcendence versus body preoccupation
– Ego transcendence versus ego preoccupation
• Ardelt (2008) writes that ego transcendence grows out
of self-reflection and willingness to learn from
experience.
– Ego transcendence is characterized by a concern for the wellbeing of humankind in general, not only of ourselves and those
we love.
Robert Butler’s Life Review
• Butler (2002) suggests reminiscence is a normal aspect
of aging.
– People can be extremely complex and nuanced.
– They can be incoherent and self-contradictory
– Life reviews attempt to make life meaningful, to help people
move on with new relationships as others in their lives pass on,
and to help them find ego integrity and accept the end of life.
• Butler (2002) argues helping professionals rely too
much on drugs to ease the discomforts of older adults.
– Pilot programs suggest therapists may be able to relieve
depression and other psychological problems in older adults by
helping them reminisce about their lives.
Disengagement Theory
• Disengagement theory
– Older people and society mutually withdraw from one another
as older people approach death.
– People in late adulthood focus more on their inner lives,
preparing for the inevitable.
– Government or industry now supports them through pensions or
charity rather than vice versa.
– Family members expect less from them.
– Older people and society prepare to let go of one another.
• Well-being among older adults is predicted by pursuing
goals, rather than withdrawal.
Activity Theory
• Activity theory
– Older adults are better adjusted when they are more active and
involved in physical and social activities.
• Physical activity is associated with a lower mortality rate
in late adulthood.
– Leisure and informal social activities contribute to life
satisfaction among retired people.
– Israeli study found benefits for life satisfaction in activities
involving the next generation, the visual and performing arts,
and spiritual and religious matters, but there was also value in
independent activities in the home
Socioemotional Selectivity Theory
• Socioemotional selectivity theory
– Looks at older adults’ social networks
– Theory of motivation hypothesizes increasing emphasis is
placed on emotional experience as we age
– Research by Carstensen et al. (1999) indicated proportion of
emotional material recalled increased with the age group,
showing greater emotional response of older subjects.
• Social contacts limited to a few individuals who are of
major importance to us as we grow older
• Does not mean older adults are antisocial
– See themselves as having less time to waste and they are more
risk-averse
– They do not want to involve themselves in painful social
interactions
Psychological Development
Self-Esteem
• Robins et al. (2002)
– Recruited more than 300,000 individuals, who completed an
extensive online questionnaire that provided demographic
information and measures of self-esteem
– Results indicated self-esteem of males was higher than that of
females
– Self-esteem highest in childhood and dips with entry into
adolescence
– Self-esteem then rises gradually throughout middle adulthood
and declines in late adulthood, with most of the decline
occurring between the 70s and the 80s
– All this is “relative”
– The measure of self-esteem is above the mid-point of the
questionnaire for adults in their 80s
Fig. 18-2, p. 375
Self-Esteem (cont’d)
• Drop in self-esteem may be due to life changes such as
retirement, loss of a spouse or partner, lessened social
support, declining health, and downward movement in
socioeconomic status
– Or older people are wiser and more content
• Older people express less “body esteem”
– Older men express less body esteem than older women
– Men more likely to accumulate fat around the middle, women
accumulate fat in the hips
– Sexual arousal problems more distressing for the male
– Older adults with poor body esteem tend to withdraw from
sexual activity, often frustrating their partners.
Independence/Dependence
• Older people who are independent think of themselves
as leading a “normal life”.
– Those who are dependent on others, even only slightly
dependent, tend to worry more about aging and encountering
physical disabilities and stress.
• A study of 441 healthy people aged 65-95 found
dependence on others to carry out the activities of daily
living increased with age (Perrig-Chiello et al., 2006).
• Interviews of stroke victims found independence in
toileting is important in enabling older people to avoid
slippage in self-esteem (Clark & Rugg, 2005).
Depression
• Affects some 10% of people aged 65 and above
• Depression in older people sometimes a continuation of
depression from earlier periods of life and sometimes a
new development
• Appears to have multiple origins
– Can be connected with the personality factor of neuroticism
– Possible structural changes in the brain
– Possible genetic predisposition to imbalances of the
neurotransmitter noradrenaline; may be link between
depression and physical illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease,
heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cancer
Depression (cont’d)
• Depression is connected with the loss of friends and
loved ones, but depression is a mental disorder that
goes beyond sadness or bereavement.
• Loss of companions and friends will cause profound
sadness, but mentally healthy people bounce back
within a year or so.
• Depression goes undetected, untreated in older people
much of the time.
– May be overlooked because symptoms are masked by physical
complaints such as low energy, loss of appetite, and insomnia
– Healthcare providers tend to focus on older people’s physical
health than their mental health
Depression (cont’d)
• Depression connected with memory lapses and other
cognitive impairment, such as difficulty concentrating
• Some cases of depression are simply attributed to the
effects of aging or misdiagnosed as dementia, even
Alzheimer’s disease
• Depression in older people can usually be treated
successfully with the same means that work in younger
people, such as antidepressant drugs and cognitivebehavioral psychotherapy.
Depression (cont’d)
• Untreated depression can lead to suicide, which is most
common among older people.
• Highest rates of suicide found among older men who
– have lost their wives or their partners
– lost their social networks
– fear the consequences of physical illnesses and loss of freedom
of action
• Fewer older adults suffer from depression than younger
adults, suicide is more frequent among older adults,
especially Caucasian men.
Anxiety Disorders
• Anxiety disorders affect at least 3% of those aged 65
and above, but coexist with depression in about 8% to
9% of older adults.
• Most frequently occurring anxiety disorders among older
adults are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and
phobic disorders.
– Panic disorder is rare
– Agoraphobia affecting older adults tends to be of recent origin
and may involve the loss of social support systems due to the
death of a spouse or close friends.
– GAD may arise from the perception that one lacks control over
one’s life.
Anxiety Disorders (cont’d)
• Anxiety disorders increase levels of cortisol (a stress
hormone).
– Takes time for them to subside
– Cortisol suppresses functioning of the immune system, so that
people are more vulnerable to illness.
• Mild tranquilizers are commonly used to quell anxiety in
older adults.
• Psychological interventions
– Cognitive-behavior therapy
• Shows therapeutic benefits in treating anxiety in older adults
• Does not carry the risk of side effects or potential dependence
Social Contexts of Aging
Communities and Housing for Older People
• Older Americans report that they prefer to remain in
their homes as long as their physical and mental
conditions allow them.
• Older people with greater financial resources, larger
amounts of equity in their homes, and stronger ties to
their communities are more likely to remain in their
homes.
• Older people with declining health conditions, changes
in their family composition, and significant increases in
property taxes and costs of utilities are likely to need to
consider residing elsewhere.
Communities and Housing for Older People
(cont’d)
• Older people who live in cities, especially inner cities,
are highly concerned about exposure to crime,
particularly crimes of violence.
– Most concerned
• People of advanced old age (80 and above), in poor health, and of
depressed mood
• People aged 80 and above less likely to be victimized
than people in other age groups
– Social support helps older people cope with their concerns
about victimization
– If victimized, it helps them avoid some of the problems that
characterize posttraumatic stress disorder
Communities and Housing for Older People
(cont’d)
• Older people who can no longer manage living on their
own may have access to home health aides and visiting
nurses to help them remain in the home.
• Affluent older people may be able to afford to hire
round-the-clock or part-time live-in help.
– Others may move in with adult children
– Others may move into assisted living residences in which they
have their own apartments but community dining rooms and
nursing aid with physicians on call and available in the facility
Communities and Housing for Older People
(cont’d)
• Older adults who relocate to residences for the elderly,
whether or not they have facilities for assisted living,
tend to experience disrupted social networks and
challenges for finding new friends and creating new
networks.
• Residences should have communal dining facilities and
organized activities, including transportation to nearby
shopping and entertainment.
– Residents take time in engaging other people socially and are
selective in forming new relationships.
Communities and Housing for Older People
(cont’d)
• Older adults may be most reluctant to relocate to nursing
homes because nursing homes signify the loss of
independence.
• Surveys indicate that older adults are relatively more
willing to enter nursing homes when they perceive
themselves to be in poor health and when one or more
close family members live near the nursing home.
• “Elder abuse”
– Staff acts harshly toward residents, sometimes in response to
cognitively impaired residents acting aggressively toward the
staff; well-selected and well-trained staff can deal well with
impaired residents
Religion
• Religion involves participating in the social, educational,
and charitable activities of a congregation as well as
worshiping.
– Religion and religious activities provide a vast arena for social
networking for older adults.
• As people undergo physical decline, religion asks them
to focus, instead, on moral conduct and spiritual, not
physical, “substance” such as the soul
– Studies find religious involvement in late adulthood is usually
associated with less depression and more life satisfaction as
long as it is done in moderation.
Religion (cont’d)
• Frequent churchgoing associated with fewer problems in
the activities of daily living among older people
• Older African Americans who attend services more than
once a week live 13.7 years longer, on average, than
their counterparts who never attend church
• In-depth interviews with the churchgoers find reasons
such as the following for their relative longevity
– avoidance of negative coping methods such as aggressive
behavior and drinking alcohol
– evading being victimized by violence
– hopefulness
– social support
Marriage
• 20% to 25% of marriages last half a century or more,
only to end with the death of one of the spouses.
• Couples report less disagreement over finances,
household chores, and parenting/grandparenting.
• Concerns about emotional expression and
companionship
– Older couples show more affectionate behavior when they
discuss conflicts, and they disagree with one another less in
general.
– Similarity in personality is less of a contributor to conflict than in
midlife, consistent with the finding that similarity in
conscientiousness and extraversion is no longer strongly
associated with marital dissatisfaction.
Divorce, Cohabitation, and Remarriage
• Older adults less likely than younger adults to seek
divorce; fear of loss of assets, family disruption, and
relocation, and older adults do not undertake divorce
lightly
– If divorcing, often because they belong to an aberrant marriage
that is punitive or because one of the partners has taken up a
relationship with an outsider
• 4% of older adults of the unmarried population cohabit
– Less likely than younger people to wish to remarry
– Older cohabiters report being in more intimate, stable
relationships.
– Younger cohabiters see their lifestyle as a prelude to marriage,
older cohabiters are more likely to see their relationship as an
alternate lifestyle.
Gay and Lesbian Relationships
• Gay men and lesbians in long-term partnerships tend to
enjoy higher self-esteem, less depression and fewer
suicidal urges, and less alcohol and drug abuse.
• Gay men in long-term partnerships are also less likely to
incur sexually transmitted infections.
• Gay men and lesbians sometimes form long-term
intimate relationships with straight people of the other
sex; relationships do not involve sexual activity, but the
couples consider themselves to be “family” and are
confidants.
Widowhood
• Middle-aged male widowers are relatively more capable
of dealing with their loss than older males.
• Men and women need to engage in the activities of daily
living (taking care of their personal hygiene, assuming
the responsibilities that had been handled by their
spouse, and remaining connected to the larger social
community).
• Widowhood more likely to lead to social isolation than is
marital separation
– Reasons for isolation are physical, cognitive, and emotional
Widowhood (cont’d)
• Widowhood leads to a decline in physical and mental
health, including increased mortality and deterioration in
memory functioning.
• Loss of a spouse heightens risks of depression and
suicide among older adults, more so among men than
women.
• Men who are widowed are more likely than women to
remarry, or at least to form new relationships with the
other sex.
– Women, more so than men, make use of the web of kinship
relations and close friendships available to them.
– Men may be less adept than women at various aspects of self
and household care.
Singles and Older People without Children
• Single older adults without children just as likely as
people who have had children to be socially active and
involved in volunteer work
– Tend to maintain close relationships with siblings and long-time
friends
– Very old (mean age = 93) mothers and women who have not
had children report equally positive levels of well-being
• Married older men without children appear to be
especially dependent on their spouses.
• Parents seem to be more likely than people without
children to have the social network that permits them to
avoid nursing homes or other residential care upon
physical decline.
Siblings
• Older sibling pairs tend to give each other emotional
support.
– True among sisters (women more likely than men to talk about
feelings) who are close in age and geographically close
• After being widowed, siblings (and children) tend to
ramp up their social contacts and emotional support.
– Support begins to decrease within two to three years
– A sibling, especially a sister, often takes the place of a spouse
as a confidant
• Twin relationships more intense in terms of frequency of
contacts, intimacy, conflict, and emotional support
– Frequency of contact and emotional closeness declines from
early to middle adulthood, but increases again in late adulthood
(mean age at time of study = 71.5 years)
Friendship
• Older people narrow friendships to friends who are most
like them and share similar activities.
• To regulate their emotions, they tend to avoid “friends”
with whom they have had conflict over the years.
• Friends form social networks that keep elders active and
involved.
• Friends remain confidants with whom older adults can
share feelings and ideas.
Friendship (cont’d)
• Friends provide emotional closeness and support.
• Friendships help older adults avert feelings of
depression.
• Social networking helps with physical and psychological
well-being of older adults in the community and in
residential living facilities.
• Older adults have a difficult time forming new
friendships when they relocate; with time, patience, and
encouragement, new friendships can develop.
Adult Children and Grandchildren
• Grandparents provide a perspective on the behavior
and achievements of their grandchildren they might not
have had with their own children.
• Both cohorts view each other in a positive light and see
their ties as deep and meaningful.
• Grandparents-grandchildren conceptualize their
relationships as distinct family connections that involve
unconditional love, emotional support, obligation, and
respect.
• Grandparents and adult grandchildren often act as
friends and confidants.
– Their relationship can seem precious, capable of being cut short
at any time
Retirement
Retirement and Retirement Planning
• The average person has two decades of life in front of
him or her at the age of 65, indicating a need for
retirement planning (Arias, 2011).
• Retirement planning may include regularly putting
money aside in plans (IRAs, Keoghs, and various
pension plans in the workplace).
– Investing in stocks, bonds, or a second home
• Older people may investigate the kinds of healthcare
and cultural activities that are available in other
geographic areas of interest.
– If they are thinking of another area, they will also be interested
in learning about the weather and crime statistics
Retirement and Retirement Planning (cont’d)
• Couples in relationships—including married
heterosexuals, cohabiting heterosexuals, and gay and
lesbian couples—usually but not always make their
retirement plans interdependently.
– The greater the satisfaction in the relationship, the more likely
the couple are to make their retirement plans together
• In married couples,
– husbands more often than wives tend to be in control of the
plans
– although control was also related to the partner’s workload and
income level
Adjustment to Retirement
• Older adults who are best adjusted to retirement are
highly involved in a variety of activities.
• The group most satisfied with retirement maintained
leisure and other non-work-related activities as sources
of life satisfaction or replaced work with more satisfying
activities.
– They retired at a typical retirement age, had a wealth of
resources to compensate for loss of work; they were married, in
good health, and of high SES (Pinquart and Schindler, 2007)
Adjustment to Retirement (cont’d)
• The second retiree group retired at a later age and
tended to be female.
• The majority of the third group retired at a younger age
and tended to be male..
• The second and third groups were not as satisfied with
retirement; they were in poorer health, less likely to be
married, and lower in socioeconomic status than the first
group.
• The third retiree group had a spotty employment record;
retirement per se didn’t change these people’s lives in
major ways.
Adjustment to Retirement (cont’d)
• Adjustment of older retirees may be affected by their
pre-retirement work identities
– Upscale professional workers continued to be well-adjusted and
had high self-esteem
– They considered themselves retired professors or retired
doctors or retired lawyers
• Hourly wage earners and other blue collar workers had
lower self-esteem and were more likely to think of
themselves as simply a retired person.
• The following factors made adjustment to retirement
difficult:
– a lengthy attachment to work
– lack of control over the transition to retirement
– worrying and lack of self-confidence
Leisure Activities and Retirement
• Engaging in leisure activities is essential for retirees’
physical and psychological health.
• Joint leisure activities contribute to satisfaction of marital
and other intimate partners and to family well-being.
• Contributing to civic activities or volunteering to assist in
hospitals enhances retirees’ self-esteem and fosters
feelings of self-efficacy.
• If health remains good, leisure activities carry over from
working days and may ease transition to retirement.
– Physical aspects of aging and the death of companions with
whom the retiree had shared leisure activities can force changes
in choice of activities and diminish satisfaction.
Successful Aging
Successful Aging
• Americans in their 70s report being generally satisfied
with their lives.
• Many older people are robust.
– According to a national poll of some 1,600 adults by the Los
Angeles Times, 75% of older people say they feel younger than
their years (Stewart & Armet, 2000)
• Definitions of successful aging
–
–
–
–
Physical activity, social contacts, self-rated good health
The absence of cognitive impairment and depression
Not smoking
The absence of disabilities and chronic diseases such as
arthritis and diabetes
– Another definition includes high cognitive functioning and high
social networking
Selective Optimization with Compensation
• Selective optimization with compensation
– Older people manage to maximize their gains while minimizing
their losses
• Successful agers
– form emotional goals that bring them satisfaction
– no longer compete in arenas better left to younger people, such
as certain athletic or business activities
– tend to be optimistic
– often challenge themselves by taking up new pursuits such as
painting
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