Well-being

Older people and Well-being “A large body of empirical and theoretical research, however, supports the idea that negative changes increase in later adulthood and old age, as everyday experiences and stereotypes might indeed lead us to expect (P. B. Baltes, 1997). At the same time, many studies show that for the large majority of older people, subjective well-being does not decrease in later adulthood, at least into the early phases of old age (P. B. Baltes, 1997). This implies the existence of different mechanisms at work, which buffer or completely absorb the impact of increasingly negative development influences.
This aspect of aging has never been more important than it is today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century: Society is graying (Williamson, 2002), and historically speaking, this is a “young” phenomenon (P. B. Baltes & Baltes, 1990). Nevertheless, despite the growing population of elderly people—both because more people are living to reach old age and because on average they are living longer (Maier & Vaupel, 2003)—there is much evidence that elderly people in this aging society will do better socially, physically, and psychologically than any older generation before them. “ Part of the ageist society that we have created is the (accepted) projection of an image of decline and deficit in the later years of life. We have all come to believe that it is nothing to look forward to, and that being old is often a time of misery. For the most, that is what we are fed by mainstream and social media on a daily basis. I want to challenge that based on the article cited above.
There is now a wealth of evidence that is worth paying attention to, not only for what it produces, but for the fact that it is based on research that includes the global South (previously known as the “third world” or “developing countries”). Unfortunate as it is that it still does not cover older people across the spectrum in developing countries, it gives a good indication of what we consider to be a global phenomenon – that older people generally believe that they are living a good life. Of course when we focus on deficits and decline and our research explores only those aspects, we will have a skewed view of the well-being of older people. (Someone recently explained how statistics work: if you have your head in the blazing oven and your feet in the freezer, your ass will be warm…). What statisticians want to find they will find.
The upshot of this is that if we (as the general “younger” population) see older people as “suffering from…”, that will be the way that we frame their Being-in-the-world. It creates the lens through which we see older people, which in turn becomes the way that we treat them. Of course, even worse is the secondary affect – older people start believing what we tell them and what they read about themselves in the media – that they are indeed a “care burden on the world economy”!
Whilst thousands of older people died during the COVID-19 pandemic, this does not mean that as a population they are feeble or frail, nor that they are the worst off in terms of well-being during this time. On the contrary – every single older person that I spoke to seems to be strong minded, grateful for what they had and not nearly as phased as some of my younger friends were. There is a quality in ageing that somehow we often do not see (or perhaps want to see) – and I don’t quite know how to describe it. “Downward compensation” comes to mind, that older people develop the ability to see that there are always other people who are worse off than them. But there is more to it – gratitude, grace, a focus on the bigger picture, insight, wisdom and a strong sense of resilience (I am still unpacking resilience).
The stories of sad old people crying themselves to sleep at night, depressed about their children not visiting and being locked down….well, I am sure that there are some for whom this is a very trying time. However, we need to start listening to all the stories of older people with a different perspective, really hear them, and learn from them. Their wisdom is what the world needs now more than ever. While we sweat the small stuff, they can teach us about gratitude and grace, which is really what the world needs now more than ever!
Rayne Stroebel MSc (Dementia Studies)
+27 82 455 5300 rayne@mindsmatter.co.za <mailto:rayne@mindsmatter.co.za> www.mindsmatter.co.za <www.mindsmatter.co.za/>

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