aging

Happy seniors dwell on the good ol’ days

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Findings suggest that reflecting on past accomplishments can encourage well-being late in life. “You can be not overly satisfied with your overall current capacity and physical well-being, but you can still be a very happy person because there’s a lot you can contribute just by sharing some of the things that nobody knew because it was 80 or 90 years ago,” says researcher Peter Martin. (Courtesy: iStockphoto)

IOWA STATE (US)—Past satisfaction with life—even if it comes from simple accomplishments—is the key to happiness in later years, a new study shows.

“The past is the best predictor of the future, so you’re not going to turn your life around at 85 or 90,” says Peter Martin, professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University.

“But it’s also good to know that past accomplishments and the happiness that you had—looking back at your past—carries you through these very last years.”

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Peter Martin (right), director of Iowa State’s gerontology program and a professor of human development and family studies, shares a laugh during a research session with centenarian John Persinger. (Credit: Bob Elbert/ISU News Service)

In contrast, diminished cognitive problem-solving ability was a significant predictor of depressive symptoms in octogenarians..

The findings are the results of two studies, both published online in the journal Gerontology.

In the happiness study, 158 Georgia centenarians were asked a series of questions that assessed their happiness, perceived health, social provisions, economic security, and life satisfaction. While there was no indication that resources affect happiness, past life satisfaction—even individual achievements—were found to have a direct association.

The results highlight the importance of programs for the elderly that include reminiscence therapy and structured life review sessions to foster feelings of happiness among very old populations.

“You can be not overly satisfied with your overall current capacity and physical well-being, but you can still be a very happy person because there’s a lot you can contribute just by sharing some of the things that nobody knew because it was 80 or 90 years ago,” explains Martin.

In the second study, depressive symptoms, demographics, and functional indicators, cognition, and personality were measured and compared between octogenarians and centenarians.

Overall, cognition was not a stronger predictor of depressive symptoms at either age.

Rather, it was the loss of the subject’s control—problem-solving in the octogenarians, and choosing where they lived in the centenarians—that tended to add to depression.

“In the case of the octogenarians, it’s not so much your intellectual ability as it is the ability to come up with a solution to a particular task that you used to be able to solve in your 60s and 70s,” Martin explains. “And so for the first time, you realize that there may be decline in being able to manage tasks.

“And at 100, it’s not so much the surrounding of the nursing home that gets you depressed,” he adds. “But in a nursing home, two things have changed. First, there’s a sign that you cannot take care of yourself anymore. And then there’s the sign that you know you only have limited time to live, which is different for an 80-year-old.”

Worry and anxiety also contribute to depression in centenarians, Martin says, especially in matters concerning grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The studies have practical applications for elderly care providers.

“When we have professionals who work with elderly in nursing homes, we pay so much attention to the helping condition—make sure they eat, make sure they have their hygiene taken care of, and so forth—but you also have to work on the mood aspect of it,” Martin says.

Iowa State University news: www.news.iastate.edu/

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