The field of gerontology aims to provide satisfaction to the final years of an individual’s life. This is generally done by enriching the quality of life during senior years. Quality of life is the current phrase that is often employed to pertain to what was then called the good life a few decades ago. Such concept has been a subject of interest by several fields of study, including philosophy, literature and even the biomedical sciences. However, it is imperative that one recognizes the strong significance and influence of the biological and psychological factors to the quality of life. The Greek story about Tithonos, who was given the gift of immortality by Zeus, and his experience in living such a long life that his looks and strength were gone but he still survive for so many decades. This myth shows that there are still certain times wherein an individual would yearn for death to end such poor quality of life.
There is substantial research evidence that suggests that the preservation of quality of life is positively correlated with life expectancy. Thus, the augmentation of the quality of life among senior citizens has been the focus of attention and efforts of sociologists, psychologists and legislative bodies. It should be noted that there is no point in extending an individual’s life if he is suffering from poor health, suffering or chronic illness. This report will describe concepts of successful aging, in relation to the psychological factors that influence a senior citizen’s quality of life.
SUCCESSFUL AGING: DEFINED
Initial research efforts on the concept of successful aging started in the early 1960s, wherein elderly individuals were observed in terms of their social actions and patterns. In addition, specific factors for everyday living in an elderly individual were identified, as well as its influence on the total well-being of that individual. Mechanisms for coping to specific problems and issues among the elderly were also examined. Such research efforts resulted in measurement tools which facilitated in determining the quality of life and more importantly, successful aging (Flood, 2002). A few decades later, gerontologists focused on the factors that limited the normal functioning of elderly individuals. Specific situations that maintained the abilities of elderly individuals to function were also studied.
Today, successful aging is an essential concept in the field of gerontology, wherein determinants of a good quality of living have been recognized (Hansen-Kyle, 2005). It has also been observed that successful aging can only be determined by taking into account both quantitative and qualitative criteria of an elderly individual. It has been proposed that successful aging is a combination of vitality, resistance, integrity and a good fit with respect to the environment (Blazer, 1990). It has also been theorized that biological indicators such as longevity and health, psychological capabilities and positive outlook in life also constitute a successful senior life (Baltes and Baltes, 1990). It has also been suggested that successful aging can also be determined based on the individual himself, and his preservation of cognition, independence and capabilities (Roos and Havens, 1991). In addition to the identification of characteristics of successful aging, it has also been observed that selective optimization with compensation and self-functioning are key factors in determining successful aging.
SELECTIVE OPTIMIZATION WITH COMPENSATION IN SUCCESSFUL AGING
Two key concepts have been determined to influence an elderly individual to think that his condition of aging is successful. The first concept is interindividual variability, which is related to the broad diversity that is observed among elderly individuals. The second concept is interindividual plasticity, which pertains to the capacity of an elderly individual to learn, despite his senior age. When an elderly individual achieves both concepts, he feels that he still has a wide range of opportunities to continue developing himself for the rest of his living years, regardless of his seniority. Such model for successful aging mainly follows the mode of selective optimization with compensation, wherein compensation pertains to the feeling of still being capable of performing tasks amidst old age. Such perception is also associated with adaptation, which entails changing and developing one’s self as the rest of the world also changes.
The term selection pertains to the action of specific abilities that helps an individual to keep on living and functioning. Selection is strongly associated with reduction because it restricts the number of actions an individual could perform, wherein the rest of the other capabilities he used to perform during his younger years yet are not so important in the maintenance of his daily living are not recognized as essential during his senior years. However, it should also be noted that selection also connotes adaptation because he does not ignore the fact the certain abilities are now that easily performed but he can still survive through everyday life because he can still perform specific essential tasks. A prime example of selective specialization is the everyday activities such as care of his self and maintenance of the house. The ability of an elderly individual to perform such tasks generates a sense of importance to himself. The existence of a social network for an elderly individual provides a social support for him, as well as maintains his emotions and psychological well-being.
The term optimization pertains to the concept that a person adjusts himself so that he could function in a better way. This may involve making use of the environmental and biological chances so that his capacity will increase in terms of quantity and quality. Optimization thus entails the maximization of an individual’s functional ability in life. Elderly individuals can still achieve optimization, amidst the deterioration of other physical capabilities. Such condition is what plasticity depicts, wherein an elderly individual improves his capabilities as he ages (Schaie, 1994).
When an elderly individual’s ability to perform a certain task weakens, he generally designs strategies that would compensate for any deficit he is aware of. Compensation may be in the form of using elements of behavior such as hearing aids, or elements of cognition such as mnemonics for the elderly individual to remember things or names. It has been observed that young and elderly typists can work with a typewriter with the same efficiency regardless of age because an elderly typist is has compensated in the ability of visualizing the text. It has been determined that compensation is related to intellectual functioning, which operates through either a passive control or a delegated control. The selective specialization with compensation model of successful aging has been criticized because of the exclusion of economic and social aspects in the concept.
ADAPTATION AND STRESS IN THE ELDERLY
The capacity to adapt in the presence of obstacles and problems is an event that every individual faces at least once during his entire lifetime. Adaptation occurs as life continues to unfold right before the eyes of every individual, yet the capability of each individual to adapt depends mainly of any previous experiences he went through. Such notion is known as trajectory and this is the main origin for the differentiation among elderly individuals. Adaptation is associated with two forms of selection, structural and behavioral. The structural route of adaptation involves providing changes in the socio-educational level of an elderly individual. On the other hand, the behavioral route of adaptation involves active choices that are made throughout an individual’s lifetime. Both structural and behavioral selections affect the changes that happen to an individual as he ages.
Stressful events that occur to elderly individuals often result in specific responses that are much different from how younger individuals would respond to (Castro et al., 1996). In elderly individuals, there are two general types of stressors. The first type is composed of life events which are particular incidents that result in important changes in an individual’s life. Such life-changing events generally demand a great amount of effort from an individual to adapt. The changes in life may include death of a spouse, retirement or relocating to another house. Among elderly individuals, stressors actually do not directly convey stress, but the negative associations that result from such event directly influence an individual to feel stress. There have been attempts to explain such connection and it has been generally perceived that life-changing events result in conditions that are in conflict with an individual, thus resulting in a change in lifestyle, which then results in stress. It should be noted, though, that there are some life-changing events that are normally expected, such as retirement. Such anticipation of an event does not convey any negative association to an individual and this might actually provide a positive association on an elderly individual’s well-being, because he would look forward to time away from work and time filled with relaxation.
A second type of stressor among elderly individuals includes experiences that are associated with their health. It is expected that as an individual ages, health problems start to appear and worsen. This category of stressors also includes death of particular people that are close to an elderly person, such as a spouse or a best friend. During old age, experiences with death of people they know occurs more frequently than when the individual was younger. Such higher frequency brings about a negative emotional impact of different durations and intensities, depending on whom and how a relative or friend passed away. It has been observed that the loss of a family member or close friend may also bring a positive impact of an elderly individual. This may be through the increase in social contact with the rest of the family members or the rest of the members of his circle of friends. Other elderly individuals would feel a positive impact such as a feeling of independence and competence within themselves, because settings are now much different than when the loved one was still alive.
Adaptation can thus serve as an indicator that an elderly individual is putting some effort into achieving a normal condition amidst all the stress that may arise during or right after a life-changing incident occurs. One example of chronic stress in life is the death of an individual’s child. The experience may even be much more difficult if the individual has lost his or her spouse earlier. Such situation causes more than one difficult incident causes more stress, thus the response of an individual will be more massive, in terms of the negative effects of his social, psychological and biological activities. In turn, an elderly individual may find it difficult to relate with his physical environment after these life-changing events. Also, there is an increase in their sense of insecurity amidst particular conditions in the environment. This is exemplified is a situation wherein an elderly individual moves to a new house in a new location or moving into a nursing home where there are other elderly people staying there whom he does not know. In the case where the elderly individual stays in his same home and community, his interaction with his immediate environment gradually changes thru time, amidst the constant conditions of the environment. This is due to the elderly individual’s further deterioration of his physical condition which makes him feel vulnerable even in the presence of familiar settings. However, it should also be taken into account that the surroundings of the elderly individual also change. This includes community members moving in or out or passing away or being born. These kinds of changes may also serve as a source of stress to the elderly individual. The loss of a friend in the community through either moving or passing away is thus perceived by the elderly individual as a decrease in size of his social network, which then imparts a negative impact on his personal life. In addition, modification in his urban surroundings such as stores closing down and new establishments being erected, or alterations in the system of public transport, or changes in the neighborhood services, may also affect the elderly individual’s sense of comfort, as well as security. If the changes within the elderly individual’s own condition are considered together with the rest of the changes within the environment, it will be easy to deduce that the interactions the elderly individual makes after all these changes occur will be more complicated than what was earlier perceived. An example here is when an elderly individual has to walk a longer distance because the store he frequently went to closed down. Such change in the community impacts the elderly individual more than a younger person because the elderly individual has less mobility and he feels less secure than a younger individual.
Another type of chronic tension originates from the hardships associated with relationships and activities related to socialization during senior life. The major factors that cause stress come from relationships with relatives, as well as dissatisfaction with the children in terms of achieving their expectations of them. When their children are not around and do not provide any kind of support, an elderly individual’s self-esteem and independence is lost and in turn, the elderly individual perceives himself as ultimately incapacitated in terms of bringing up children.
One other stress-generating factor that originates from performing tasks is that related to taking care of a member of the family. Acting as a principal caregiver is associated with a battery of primary stress inducers, such as performing daily activities, adjusting with complicated behaviors such as wandering and agitation. Secondary stress inducers such as clashes with other relative, the decrease in size of an elderly’s social group and health ailments are induce stress. The microenvironment of an elderly individual can also pose as a source of stress. This interactive area is associated with daily situations that the elderly individual must cope with. Examples of these include going up the stair, remembering dates and names and managing little matters. The degree of stress varies among elderly individuals, depending on the physical, mental and environmental conditions of that particular person.
Particular situations that may not seem to be stressful to younger people may induce stress among elderly individuals, depending on the type and impact of the situation. The consequence of a stressful condition varies in every elderly individual, depending on the importance of the area of his life that it is associated with (Pearline and Skaff, 1995). For example, an individual who opts for early retirement when he is 55 years old will experience a different impact from the individual that goes for retirement when he is 63 years old. Another example can be observed in an individual who losses a partner at 35 years old and an individual who losses a partner when he is 85 years old.
COPING WITH STRESS IN THE ELDERLY
It has been observed that elderly individuals deal with everyday situations that bring stress to their lives and affect their total well-being. Most of the elderly individuals have learned to adapt to these kinds of situations so that they are able to maintain a level of satisfaction and peace. The main mechanism behind this adaptation is the cushioning of the negative effects of stressful situations. There are three general resources that facilitate them to cope with daily stressful situations. The economic resource is one of the best cushioning resource for difficult and/or changing conditions. Ample access to economic resources provides more choices for elderly individuals that are generally in varying conditions. Regardless of a situation being normative or non-normative, or a condition being expected or unexpected, an elderly individual with sufficient economic resources has the capability to compensate for any loss that occurs during his senior life. An example, it is easier for an elderly person to adapt to the new condition of retirement if he has resources to participate in several activities that would keep him busy (Giddings, et al. 2007). Social resources, on the other hand, are considered as the most essential kind of resources that may be employed to pamper an elderly individual against stressful conditions of senior living.
Social support is generally the best source for coping, especially when all other strategies do not resolve a stressful situation. Analysts have considered that the presence of social support is positively correlated with an elderly individual’s longevity, although the exact mechanism behind such connection has not yet been established. It has been suggested that the effectivity of social support depends on the combined effect of the provider of support and what kind of social support is provided. An example is the support given by professionals to elderly individuals who are in need of lessening their sense of burden. Another example is the emotional assistance that veteran caregivers provide to war veterans who are in need of prevention measures for emotional disorders. Personal resources pertain to the competences that an elderly individual has in order to adjust to his environment. This kind of resource may involve educating an elderly individual to understand what control means.
An elderly individual may cope with a stressful situation through three modes. He may pursue a direct response to the stressful situation in order to maintain his control over his life. An elderly individual may, on the other hand, opt to change the meaning of a certain situation to lessen the negative impact of a stressful situation on his well-being. An elderly individual may also try to manage the actual effect and impact of a stressful situation so that he will not be tremendously incapacitated with regards to his daily activities and well-being.