Emotion in adult development

There are four central criticisms which may be applied to earlier research on successful ageing. The first general criticism is that there seems to be a certain amount of negativism in previous approaches to successful ageing (Ryff, 1989). In other words, a significant amount of research has been conducted with emphasis on measures of illness rather than measures of wellness. Lawton’s review (1977) reveals the focus on indices of anxiety, depression, worry, loneliness, and somatic symptoms as measures of well-being.

Essentially, such research suggests that the absence of illness equates to well being. The negative atmosphere is also evident in researchers’ expectations: “With regard to life span patterns, happiness has always been a part of youth, while the shrinking perspective associated with growing older is assumed to lead to unhappiness, if not despair” (Herzog, Rodgers, and Woodworth, 1982, p.3 cited in Ryff, 1989). Preconceived notions such as “the paradox of happiness in old age” (Costa and McCrae, 1984 cited in Ryff, 1989) and the reliance on measures of illness have not facilitated a more positive understanding of successful ageing.

Another issue with previous research is that little attention has been given to the unique challenges that come with old age, or to possibilities of continued development in the later years. Most indicators such as happiness, well-being etc. are more effective measures of successful living rather than measures of successful ageing (Scheidt et al. 1999). A related tendency has been to equate positive functioning with maintenance of previous attitudes and behaviour patterns rather than successful handling of new challenges and developmental tasks (Ryff, 1989). The existing literature on well-being generally excludes the individual’s potential for further development, self realisation and growth.

These studies in the area of the ‘continuity theory’ discussed earlier indicate there is little continued development in adulthood and old age. Such findings however were not reported on the basis of developmental theory, nor have the indices used been designed to assess growth and development (Ryff and Heincke, 1983 cited in Scheidt et al. 1999). The instruments used are actually oriented against finding evidence of change (e.g. items which show low test-retest reliability are deemed unreliable even though they may be sensitive indicators of change). Therefore, it is too early to conclude whether there is growth or development in the older years, especially given the importance of such features in holistically understanding positive ageing (Ryff, 1989).

A third possible criticism levelled against existing research singles out Rowe and Kahns (1987) famous study. Firstly, on a general level the term successful used to describe older individuals who age with no or minimal loss of function poses both connotational and denotational problems (Scheidt et al. 1999). The word connotes a fixed standard, one that requires certain criteria to be fulfilled. The outcome has been rather unrealistic: a perspective that has centred on the static endpoint – active engagement with others and productive behaviour – and are treated as fixed ends rather than desired goals (Pearlin and Skaff, 1996).

Pearlin and Skaff (1996) have noted that it could be more appropriately termed as ‘successfully aged’ than ‘successfully ageing’. Rowe and Kahn (1997) reinforced this end-point perspective reporting that it is possible for older people to move “in and out of success over time” with those who cope better and able to “return to meeting the criteria of success” (p.439 cited in Scheidt et al. 1999).

Scheidt et al. (1999) view the categorical thinking sparked by the Rowe and Kahn model of successful aging as “the mission-oriented Boy Scout, who in a presumptive attempt to aid an older pedestrian, pulls her against her will across a busy street as she kicks and screams in opposition” (p.279). Tornstam (1992) suggests we might be forcing old people to wear our own theoretical caps thinking that our points of departure for assessment are relative. In a broader context, thus far models of successful ageing have overlooked the issue of external validity and not mentioned the extent to which the model can be generalised to different cultural settings.

Considering the ludicrous universality associated with the successful ageing paradigm, it has been suggested that the debate around this construct is typical of the kind of “imposition of western templates” that is sometimes characteristic of research (Thomas and Chambers, 1989) prelim test.pdf. They have even argued that “it is impossible for Western researchers to discuss so value-laden an issue as successful ageing without imposing their own values” (p.199).

Implications for Future Research and Conclusions As this paper has shown, attempts to operationalize and clearly define successful ageing have varied widely. Some constructs have originated out of theory (e.g. construct of one study grew out of disengagement theory) whereas others been derived in an empirical manner. A more effective way to view these constructs may be to examine how many and which dimensions of health (physical, functional, psychological, and social) they encompass. Most constructs have encompassed only one of these dimensions with exceptions of a few studies (Palmore, 1979) which have been multidimensional.

None of the studies have emerged as a standard and no study has directly assessed older adults beliefs about the attributes of successful ageing (Phelan, Anderson, LeCroix and Larson, 2004). An investigation into older individuals’ perspectives on the meaning of successful ageing is required to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the concept. It is possible, for instance, that successful ageing may be a dynamic concept for individuals as they age and that individuals definitions may vary substantially by birth cohort, gender, ethnic subgroup and the presence or absence of various chronic diseases (Phelan and Larson, 2002). Exploratory research could be conducted to examine the relevance and meaning of success among different subgroups of ageing individuals at different times in their life span. This would incorporate cultural validity and a more qualitative approach from the point of view of the individual.

Although researchers have operationalized the term in a variety of ways, “successful ageing” remains a value judgment. The face validity of the term, and an empirical understanding of its purpose and application, could be improved if societal beliefs were elicited and compared with and incorporated into researchers’ definitions (Phelan and Larson, 2002). Aging individuals could enrich the meaning and relevance of successful ageing by providing input to the theoretical definitions which have largely dominated the concept, allowing a more person centered approach to the term.

A person centered approach will also be essential for future research on successful ageing as it will allow determination of predictor variables which are truly relevant to persons who are ageing (Phelan and Larson, 2002). Such an understanding is critical in increasing our understanding of a perspective that has not been explored thus far.


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