Cindy Bergeman, professor of psychology, has been charting graceful aging since graduate school. She has some heartening news about what shes seen, some which challenges myths about growing old.
Most people do age well and maintain a high level of functioning for a longer portion of the life span. Most are living independently. Its a much more optimistic picture than the media paints,she says. Clinical levels of depression are experienced only by about 15 percent of older adults, although anyone can feel down or blue for short periods of time. Though public attention to Alzheimers is widespread, dementia affects only about 20 percent of adults over 80.
Bergemans research has focused more on whats right with the elderly than what can go wrong. What are those strengths that allow individuals to do well in the face of adversity?
Nobody has a stress-free life. But if youre resilient, that is, if you develop coping strategies or support networks that limit the negative effects of stress on health and well-being, you do well.
Relience doesnt magically develop in later life.Successful aging no doubt starts early in the life span. Like an inoculation, if we experience lifes challenges, we enhance our mastery of skills, create additional coping resources, and develop a positive view of ourselves and our abilities. We build a resource that helps us to better deal with the next problem,Bergeman explains.
In one study, Bergeman observed the emotional states of recently widowed women, a time period known to be one of lifes more challenging episodes. Although the study was not designed to create a blueprintfor caring for older adults, some directions emerged that caregivers should know.
As much as aging adults need the support of family members, they also benefit tremendously from friendships with peers. It is speculated that grieving or otherwise emotionally challenged older adults can confide in friendsmembers of a book club or card groupwithout the worry that their emotional states will burden a fellow family member who also may be grieving. Conversations with friends proved more helpful in the grief recovery process than participation in formal support groups, Bergeman found.
In general, talking about ones feelings was more closely associated with emotional recovery than were encounters that helped take care of business, such as transportation to a doctor or help sorting out bills. This points to an awareness that other of Bergemans colleagues also have noted: that caregiving of a busy, task-oriented nature, although helpful, may not nurture in the same way that allowing one to share sadness and joy does.
So how do you know if you are providing the right type of support?Be careful not to do things they can do for themselves,Bergeman adds.Let them make choices. Let them have control and autonomy. Even for the very aged or ill, there still are ways to help them have a sense of control.If you offer support, be sure that you convey that your offer is genuine. Bergeman says that in interviews with widows, one of the interesting themes that emerged was a keen awareness of offers that had ahollow ringto them. Participants seemed to have a clear sense of who wanted to help and who was just making a socially appropriate comment.
Older adults thrive when they can reciprocate the support. A happy prescription for caregivers:You need to let them dothings for you,Bergeman says. One of the best predictors of successful aging is feeling like you have a purpose in life, that you are making a difference in the lives of others.