iAge

Changing how we see aging

Fascination with Obituaries

Older adults' strategy for being better

The fascination of reading the obituaries forms a purely older adult phenomenon. And it is not a morbid fascination with death, but a testament that the reader is still alive. Longevity is related to being happy with your lot. Even if you could change events, you wouldn’t—that kind of happiness. Because the only anti-aging that nature knows is death, nature rewards those who accept aging and the losses we experience on the way. 

How older adults deal with loss points to effective strategies that they have learned to use in maintaining an optimistic perspective. These are patterns of coping that start early in life. These coping strategies result in less damage to the body and result in greater longevity. One theory popular in the 1980s is now known as the Baltes’s Selective Optimization with Compensation—SOC—theory. Here Baltes describes strategies of how we address physical and mental losses as we age in order to minimize their effect.

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  Let's take for example that you are becoming deaf. The theory predicts three main strategies that older adults follow. First you become selective. You will increasingly choose quieter social settings without conflicting noises. You stop going to loud parties. Then you will optimize those situations that you choose to participate in. You will choose to be with people that you can hear better, sitting closer, giving them your best ear, you optimize what hearing you do have. This optimizes your remaining ability to listen. Lastly, you will start to compensate. You might start going to the cinema or theatre more where you do not have to converse with anyone. You might do more activities where you do not have to talk (running, swimming, hiking.) You might also compensate by learning to use hearing aides. These three SOC strategies allow you to participate without drastically changing your lifestyle. SOC is a strategy for accepting your losses. To focus on what you can do rather than what you cannot do. This strategy, learned earlier on, gets more useful with increasing age as we experience more deficits.

One of the uniquely frequent experiences in older age is the death of a close friend. Although death never become easier to accept—it is so final—there is a greater appreciation of acceptance. In 2001 Christopher Davis from St. Francis Xavier University and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema from the University of Michigan reported that older adults who have lost a loved one often try to extract some meaning of their loss. Even if meaning cannot be found the authors report that older adults search for some benefit in the loss. This is different from grief of younger adults or children. The belief that there is meaning or some benefit even in anguish of loss suggest a positive strategy. Again, the strategy of SOC is to accept the reality and to try and compensate the loss by finding some hidden meaning or benefit. 

The philosophy is “it could be worse.” Which brings us back to the fascination older adults have with the obituaries. You are always better than those who are dead.

© USA Copyrighted 2014 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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