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Life Events and Stress

Life Events In Old Age

Individuals from various age groups are exposed to different sets of life events. Yet, despite potentially important age differences, relatively little research has focused on life events in later life. Research on life events in old age is of great importance, since identifying prevalent events and managing stress in later life can not only improve our understanding of human development and adaptation, but can also serve as a basis for interventions and social policies.

Age differences in the occurrence of life events. Contrary to the general belief that old age is a stressful period of time, studies have consistently shown that older adults experience fewer life events than do younger adults. However, though the overall number of events that individuals experience may decline with advancing aging, some specific types of life events are more likely to be encountered in later life. Illness and injury, hospitalization, and the death of a spouse or a friend are examples of undesirable life events that are more prevalent in old age. Using a large sample of community-dwelling older adults, Stanley Murrell and colleagues (1984) showed that over half of their sample had experienced hospitalization, either their own or that of significant others, in the past year. Of course, some other types of life events, such as family conflict and problems with jobs, are less prevalent in older adults.

Another reason for the reduction in life events in later life may be found in the composition of measurement scales. Since most life event inventories used in previous studies were originally developed and standardized on relatively young populations, items less relevant to older adults, such as getting married, having children, and changing jobs, are often included. Given the different experiences in the life cycle, some researchers have developed life event inventories for older individuals. Studies employing relevant measures for older individuals have been shown to be more successful in relating life events and measures of well-being. The LOPES is one notable measure specifically designed for older populations. This scale includes fifty-four life events, selected on the basis of a large, stratified sample of older Kentuckians, and a recall period of six months in order to ensure greater accuracy of older adults' recall. It also contains additional useful ratings of subjects such as desirability, the degree of change required, preoccupation, date of occurrence, and novelty of each event.

Age differences when responding to life events. Some events experienced by older individuals are age-normative events that are expected by most people to occur later in the life cycle. When events are anticipated, their adverse impact may be limited because individuals are prepared for them. In the case of planned retirement, older individuals fare much better than do younger persons who involuntarily lose a job. In addition, retirement may even lead to enhanced physical and psychological well-being.

On the other hand, the death of an adult child is a non-normative experience for older individuals. Even though only a small portion of the older population experiences the loss of a child, it can have a devastating influence on physical and emotional well-being of older individuals. The unexpected and untimely nature of such an event interferes with adjustment and adaptation, and can also make older adults feel guilty.

Studies show that older individuals are more likely than younger persons to be affected by the events that occur to people they are close to. Such events have been referred to as network events or nonegocentric events. Examples include adult children's marital or financial problems and illness of family members or friends. With advancing age, individuals pay more attention to the problems of others and become vulnerable to these events.

Researchers have suggested that individuals' prior experiences should be considered to better understand their experiences with life events. This is particularly true for older adults who have had various and rich experiences through the life course. A life-long experience of dealing with stress may provide a context to understand an individual's response to certain events. In many cases, older individuals tend to perceive life events as less troublesome because they are more likely to have relevant experiences to help them cope. Research that focused on older victims of a flood showed that older individuals with prior experience of floods showed less anxiety and distress than younger persons or persons without such experience (see Murrell et al., 1988). Accumulated life experiences may make older individuals more resilient and facilitate their adaptation to change. The experience of seeing others undergo life events may also aid older people in adaptation to life events. For example, the experience of spousal bereavement may be less devastating for older widows compared to younger ones, in part because widowhood of older females is more prevalent and there are many role models in society.

Along with prior experience, current life situations also provide an important context for interpreting individual differences in the impacts of life events. Life events that happen concurrently with other events or under situations of chronic strains may have different meanings than a single event. Older caregivers of dementia patients report more negative events and appraise them as more stressful than controls who are not caregivers (see Reed, Stone, and Neale). In contrast, some researchers have suggested that chronic strains may actually mute the impact of stressful events because minor stressful events pale in comparison to more chronic stressors.

Chronic strains can even change the context and outcomes of major life events. Research suggests that highly strained caregivers show some recovery of functioning after the death of a spouse, while noncaregivers react with increased depression. Since chronic strains and life events interact in a variety of ways, examination of both life events and chronic strains is helpful in understanding individuals' responses to life events.

Positive life events. Most life events research has focused on negative and undesirable life events, and the beneficial effects of positive life events need to receive more attention. Birth of grandchildren, going on a trip out of town, receiving an award or special praise, and starting a new hobby or recreational activity are some of examples of positive events that happen in later life. These positive life events not only have a desirable meaning to older individuals but also moderate the impacts of stressful events. Positive events make individuals focus on good feelings, change views of other events, and provide motivation and resources to overcome stress resulting from negative events. Research on depression in late life has shown that depressed older adults have relatively few pleasant events, and that treatments aimed at increasing pleasant events can reduce depression.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Life Events and Stress - Life Events Research, Life Events In Old Age, Future Directions