Psychological theories

A number of psychological resources for successful ageing mention a positive outlook and self worth, self efficacy or sense of control over life, autonomy and independence, and effective coping and adaptive strategies during changing circumstances. For example, when some activities need to be given up (perhaps because of ill health) other strategies need to be initiated to find substitute activities and to maximise one’s reserves (Baltes and Baltes, 1990). Successful ageing is regarded as dynamic and the outcome of one’s psychological development over the life span (Ryff, 1989) and one’s development and learning by using past experiences to cope with present circumstances (Bowling and Dieppe, 2005).

Over time, researches elaborated the psychological meaning of successful ageing to include other dimensions such as happiness, adjustment, affect balance, morale, subjective well-being, and optimal interplay between the individual and the environment (Fozard and Popkin, 1978; Lawton, 1977; Ryff, 1989). Some of these perspectives grew out of focus on old age (Lawton’s research on morale) while other were derived from separate empirical domains and applied to the later years (Fozard and Pokin, 1978). More recent psychological definitions of successful aging have focused on cognitive function, perceived control, and life satisfaction.

Baltes and Baltes (1990) focused on successful aging as a process involving selection, optimization, and compensation through which the individual prioritises, expands on resources, and adapts. Featherman, Smith and Peterson (1990 cited in Fisher and Specht, 1999) discussed adaptive competence while the individual encounters changes in body, mind and environment. Schaie (1990 cited in Ford et al. 2000) offers a more cognitive based theory where he defines successful ageing as “the optimization of cognitive functioning” and describes cognitive functioning as composite of verbal meaning, spatial orientation, inductive reasoning, number, and word fluency.

Evidently, the changing meanings of successful ageing have paralleled changes in prevailing theories of social and psychological ideas of ageing, because ideas of what constitutes successful ageing are implicitly contained in each theory. Three major theories will be briefly presented in the next section followed by a critical evaluation of widely accepted concepts. One of the original theories of ageing was postulated by Cumming and Henry’s “disengagement theory” (1961 cited in Bearon, 1996) which proposed that in a typical course of ageing, as peoples capabilities and interests seemed diminished and societies disincentives for participation increased, people gradually began to withdraw or disengage from social roles as a natural response.

In this model, the successfully ageing individual voluntarily retires from work or family life and is at ease with turning to a rocking chair or pursuing other solitary activities, sub consciously preparing for the inevitable. Although this model seems rather passive and dated today, it was appropriate for a time period where life expectancy was shorter, onset of disability was earlier, and the jobs were physically tiring, with little activities being available for older adults (Bearon, 1996). Investigators during the 1960s possibly saw what was typical or common among older people, and that may have structured their perception of what was optimal or possible.

A second major theory of ageing, referred to as “activity theory”, suggested that people are most successful when they engage in a full round of daily activities (Lemon, Bengston, and Peterson, 1972). This model possibly explained the surge of volunteerism and senior activism in the 1960s and 1970s, and may have been responsible for forming public policies which constructed senior centres and recreational facilities in that period.

Contemporary gerontologists have criticised this view as too narrow and only advocating one particular lifestyle. Research has shown that older people are heterogeneous, and include many people who prefer less structured lives without the means to fulfil a regimented schedule of activities (Bearon, 1996). Despite criticism, activity has been promoted by older adults themselves as the key to successfully ageing with a gerontological dubbing of this philosophy as “the busy ethic” (Ekerdt, 1986).

Another theory of successful ageing has been more positively viewed in recent years; the “continuity theory” (Atchley, 1972 cited in Fisher and Specht, 1999). To summarise, this model proposes that people can age successfully if they carry forward the habits, preferences, lifestyles and relationships from midlife onto late life. The theory has been supported by results of major longitudinal studies which have shown that variables measured during midlife are significant predictors of outcomes in later life, and that many psychological and social characteristics remain throughout the lifespan (Markides and Pappas, 1982). Considering Atchleys (1972) model, the internal continuity provides direction for action and adaptation to external changes which suggests the need for specific criteria required for successful ageing.

Aside from a clear definition of the concept, the prerequisites or criteria necessary for successfully ageing need to be considered as well. Ryff (1989) identified six criteria for successful ageing, which included positive interactions with others, a sense of purpose, autonomy (as opposed to dependency), self acceptance, personal growth, and environmental fit. Fisher (1992, 1995 cited in Fisher and Specht 1999) built upon Ryff’s categorization by using a phenomenological approach and verified that five of the six criteria were viewed by respondents as necessary for successfully ageing, and that respondents considered successful ageing as a coping or attitudinal orientation to life in general. Fisher (1995 quoted in Fisher and Specht, 1999) pointed to a definition of successful ageing as a developmental process:

“People who are aging successfully are still involved in addressing current problems of identity and development, and do so in light of anticipated future situations as implicated on the basis of past experience. Put another way, successful agers continue to grow and learn as they use past experience to cope with the present and set goals for future development.” (p. 240) Although this is unclear as a definition, it may suggest that successful ageing involves an ability to cope with present circumstances by drawing on past experiences and maintaining a positive attitude towards the future. This emphasis on adaptability or coping has been shown to be central to achieving well-being in later life (Brandstadter and Renner, 1992 cited in Fisher and Specht, 1999).

The above lines of research have contributed quite significantly to our knowledge of psychological functioning in the later years. For example the broad array of indicators has expanded our thinking to operationalize such variables as well being and underscored the importance of using multi dimensional approaches to successful ageing. Despite these conceptual and empirical gains, the study of successful ageing suffers from various limitations. As a way of identifying potential research areas, the following section will critically evaluate contemporary research and identify overlooked ideas in earlier studies.

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