Issues Affecting the Aging
Late adulthood brings about many physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and social changes. Cognitive declines progress in late adulthood and affect the elder’s comprehension and information processing skills. Even so, gains in wisdom give the elderly an advantage not seen in other populations. The elderly often live through many of their friends and family members dying before their own death, and coping effectively with these losses is essential for successful completion of Erikson’s last stage, ego integrity vs. despair. If the elder cannot deal with the losses therapeutically, bereavement overload and a multitude of mental health issues could ensue.
According to Arking (2003), “aging involves multiple deleterious biological events that accumulate in different tissues over time and gradually reduce an organism’s state of maintenance and function.” The physical declines of aging are both external and internal. While the internal changes, such as increased release of stress hormones from the cerebral cortex, decreased cardiovascular and respiratory capacities, insomnia, and sensory impairments, are more detrimental to the individual’s health, the external physical changes, such as wrinkled and sagging skin, age spots, decreased mobility, graying hair, and weight changes, are less detrimental but tend to affect the individual’s mental health in a worse way (Berk, 2004). People go to extremes to avoid these external signs of aging, like submitting themselves to unnecessary and risky plastic surgeries. These surgeries are especially dangerous for the elderly population due to a decreased tolerance to anesthesia and an increased amount of healing time needed post-operation. How the older adult feels about the physical signs of aging differs based on cultural values as well. In countries where aging is thought of as respectable and admirable, such as Japan and Korea, having an aged appearance can be a source of pride (Berk, 2004). In more industrialized, Western societies, aging is thought to decrease the quality of life. Bellew, Symons, and Vandervoort (2005) state that “the process of aging in humans is characterized by a multitude of changes in all bodily systems that ultimately result in a decreased capacity to function.” Ideas such as these are common in American society, where the many opportunities and advantages of aging are often unappreciated.
Exercise and diet are very important for the senior adult to stay healthy. “Evidence continues to show that disease onset, rate of progression, and severity in older adults may be prevented, delayed, or attenuated with physical activity” (Bellew, Symons, & Vandervoort, 2005). The older adult must make adjustments in their diets and exercise regimens to accommodate for their changing metabolisms and changing dietary needs. Diets may need to include less fat and calories and more fresh fruits and vegetables to avoid gaining weight from a sedentary lifestyle. The senior adult may want to find exercise programs specifically tailored to the older population. These programs are offered at many locations such as the YMCA, local parks and recreation departments, and private gyms. These programs not only give the senior needed exercise but also give them the opportunity to socialize with others in their age group. Since the elderly population is often disengaged from society due to lack of opportunities and events, taking advantage of programs designed especially for the senior population is a good way to promote socialization. Any medical issues the older adult may have will also affect their dietary needs and physical abilities. Older adults should always consult with their physician about dietary advice and an exercise program to ensure that they are not endangering themselves.
Memory, language processing, and problem solving abilities all show declines in late adulthood along with advancements in adaptive, compensatory techniques. Deliberate memory shows significant declines in late adulthood, while automatic memory processes such as recognition and implicit memory do not show as much change. This substantiates the claim that older adults have problems with associative memory processes, or linking two or more pieces of information and/or context together (Berk, 2004). Declines are also seen in the older adult’s remote memory, or memory of long past events. Older adults tend to maintain their autobiographical memory more than events not related to their immediate lives, and they also tend to remember more events from ages 10-30 than other periods of life (Berk, 2004). This is mainly due to having more extraordinary experiences during this period, as middle adulthood is more associated with the toll of daily life. Sharp declines are seen in prospective memory, especially when time related, but the elderly as especially good at using external assistance to remember future events (Berk, 2004). Age related deterioration of the older adult’s working memory affects language processing by causing the older adult to speak more slowly, repeat words more, have false starts and hesitations, and spending more time searching for what they want to say and how they want to say it (Berk, 2004). The elderly adapt to these changes by using more personal experiences and insight in their communication with others. This allows them to discuss more things they are familiar with and use vocabulary and grammar they are comfortable with. Problem solving abilities in late adulthood become more concrete and related to daily living. Berk (2004) mentions a study done in the United States and Germany that confirms the elderly spend a third to a half a day dealing with managing problems of daily living. Older married adults also compensate for problem solving declines by combining their cognitive efforts, often with one partner making up for the other’s lacks in cognition (Berk, 2004).
Even with declines in so many cognitive areas, the elderly experience great gains in wisdom, which includes “knowledge about fundamental concerns of life…effective strategies for applying that knowledge to making life decisions…a view of people that considers the multiple demands of their life contexts…a concern with ultimate human values…
Death and dying is a major fear in the elderly population. Fry (1990) found that the elderly had fears in three major categories related to the end of life: “physical pain and suffering, risk to personal safety,
The elderly population has the unfortunate experience of frequent loss of friends and loved ones. As they progress through this stage of life more of their relationships are severed due to death, which can be extremely disheartening to the older adult. Many factors affect how the older adult’s copes with the deaths of those close to them, including whether or not the death was expected or prolonged, how close the deceased was to the adult (the death of a spouse or child is more emotionally traumatic than the death of a friend from church), and how many losses the adult has experienced recently. If the older adult begins to feel overwhelmed by such frequent and heartbreaking losses, they may enter bereavement overload, which can be extremely detrimental to his or her health. Bereavement overload and ineffective coping skills are main causes of mental and emotional issues in late adulthood.
The elderly population may be entering the last stages of life, but they are just beginning an interesting time of physical, emotional, mental, social, and psychological change. They begin to strengthen their relationships with close friends and family members, engage in more enjoyable and leisurely activities, and gain wisdom and a wealth of personal knowledge. Declines in physical and cognitive processes can be distressing to the older adult, but they are especially good at adapting to these changes and making the most out of their abilities. The elderly experience frequent loss, and if not dealt with effectively these losses can bring the person to an early death. Achieving an appropriate death is older adult’s ultimate goal and can end their life with dignity and satisfaction.
Arking, R. (2003). Aging: A biological perspective. American Scientist, 91(6), p. 508. Available from the ProQuest database.
Bellew, J.W., Symons, T.B., & Vandervoort, A.A. (2005). Geriatric fitness: Effects of aging and recommendations for exercise in older adults. Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy Journal, 16(1), p. 20-32. Available from the ProQuest database.
Berk, L.E. (2004). Development across the lifespan. Available from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.
Fry, P.S. (1990). A factor analytic investigation of home-bound elderly individuals’ concerns about death and dying, and their coping responses. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 46(6), p. 737-748. Available from the EBSCOhost database.