• What is the competence and environmental press model?

• What is the congruence model?

• What are the major aspects of stress and coping theory relating to person-environment interactions?

• What are the common themes in the theories of person-environment interactions?


ank has lived in the same poor neighborhood all of his 75 years. He has been living alone for the past several months, ever since his wife, Marilyn, had a stroke and was placed in a nursing home. Hank’s oldest daughter has been concerned about her father and has been pressing him to move in with her. Hank is reluctant: He likes knowing his neighbors, shopping in familiar stores, and being able to do what he wants. And he wonders how well he could adapt to living in a new neighborhood after all these years. He realizes it might be easier for him to cope if he lived with his daughter, but it’s a tough decision.

To appreciate the roles different environments play in our lives, we need a framework for inter­preting how people interact with them. Theories of person-environment interactions help us under­stand how people view their environments and how these views may change as people age. These views have been described since the 1930s and have had significant impact on the study of adults (Pynoos, in press). We consider four that have affected views of adult development and aging: competence and environmental press, congruence, stress and coping, and everyday competence.

All these theories can be traced to a common beginning. Many years ago Kurt Lewin (1936) conceptualized person-environment interactions in the equation: B = f(P E). This relationship defin­ing person-environment interactions means that behavior (B) is a function of both the person (P) and the environment (E). More recent theorists have taken Lewin’s equation and described the components in the equation in more detail. Specifically, their specu­lations concern the characteristics of people and environments that combine to form behavior.

Most of these models emphasize the impor­tance of people’s perceptions of their environments. That is, although objective aspects of environments (e. g., crime, housing quality) are important, per­sonal choice plays a major role. For example, many people deliberately choose to live in New York or Atlanta, even though crime rates in those cities are higher than in Selma or Walla Walla. The impor­tance of personal perception in environments is similar to the role of personal perception in social cognition and in concepts such as personal control (see Chapter 9). As you will see, these ideas, espe­cially the notion of personal control, have been included in many approaches to understanding person-environment interactions.

Competence and Environmental Press

Understanding psychosocial aging requires atten­tion to individuals’ needs rather than treating all older adults alike. One way of doing this is to focus on the relation between the person and the environ­ment (Wahl, 2001). The competence-environmental press approach is a good example of a theory that
incorporates elements of the biopsychosocial model into the person-environment relation (Lawton & Nahemow, 1973; Moore et al., 2003; Nahemow, 2000; Wahl, 2001).

Competence is defined as the upper limit of a person’s ability to function in five domains: physical health, sensory-perceptual skills, motor skills, cogni – tiveskills, and ego strength. These domains are viewed as underlying all other abilities and reflect the bio­logical and psychological forces. Environmental press refers to the physical, interpersonal, or social demands that environments put on people. Physical demands might include having to walk up three flights of stairs to your apartment. Interpersonal demands include having to adjust your behav­ior patterns to different types of people. Social demands include dealing with laws or customs that place certain expectations on people. These aspects of the theory reflect biological, psychological, and social forces. Both competence and environmental press change as people move through the life span; what you are capable of doing as a 5-year-old differs from what you are capable of doing as a 25-, 45-, 65-, or 85-year-old. Similarly, the demands put on you by the environment change as you age. Thus, the competence-environmental press framework reflects life-cycle factors as well.

The competence and environmental press model, depicted in Figure 5.1, shows how the two are related. Low to high competence is represented on the vertical axis, and weak to strong environmental press is represented on the horizontal axis. Points in the figure represent various combinations of the two. Most important, the shaded areas show that adaptive behavior and positive affect can result from many different combinations of competence and environmental press levels. Adaptation level is the area where press level is average for a particular level of competence; this is where behavior and affect are normal. Slight increases in press tend to improve performance; this area on the figure is labeled the zone of maximum performance potential. Slight decreases in press create the zone of maximum comfort, in which people are able to live happily without worrying about environmental demands. Combinations of competence and environmental

press that fall within either of these two zones result in adaptive behavior and positive emotion, which translate into a high quality of life.

As one moves away from these areas, behavior becomes increasingly maladaptive and affect becomes negative. Notice that these outcomes, too, can result from several different combinations, and for different reasons. For example, too many environmental demands on a person with low competence and too few demands on a person with high competence both result in maladaptive behaviors and negative emotion.

What does this mean with regard to late life? Is aging merely an equation relating certain vari­ables? The important thing to realize about the competence-environmental press model is that each
person has the potential of being happily adapted to some living situations, but not to all. Whether peo­ple are functioning well depends on whether what they are able to do fits what the environment forces them to do. When their abilities match the demands, people adapt; when there is a mismatch, they don’t. In this view, aging is more than an equation, as the best fit must be determined on an individual basis.

How do people deal with changes in their partic­ular combinations of environmental press (such as adjusting to a new living situation) and competence (perhaps due to illness)? People respond in two basic ways (Lawton, 1989; Nahemow, 2000). When people choose new behaviors to meet new desires or needs, they exhibit proactivity and exert control over their lives. In contrast, when people allow the

situation to dictate the options they have, they demon­strate docility and have little control. Lawton (1989) argues that proactivity is more likely to occur in people with relatively high competence, and docil­ity in people with relatively low competence.

The model has considerable research support. For example, the model accounts for why people choose the activities they do (Lawton, 1982), how well peo­ple adhere to medication regimens (LeRoux & Fisher,

2006) , how people adapt to changing housing needs over time (Iwarsson, 2005; Nygren et al., 2007) and the need to exert some degree of control over their lives (Langer & Rodin, 1976). It helps us understand how well people adapt to various care situations, such as adult day care (Moore, 2005). In short, there is considerable merit to the view that aging is a com­plex interaction between a person’s competence level and environmental press, mediated by choice. This model can be applied in many different settings.

As an example of Lawton and Nahemow’s model, consider Rick. Rick works in a store in an area of Omaha, Nebraska, where the crime rate is moderately high, representing a moderate level of environmental press. Because he is very good at self-defense, he has high competence; thus he manages to cope. Because the Omaha police chief wants to lower the crime rate in that area, he increases patrols, thereby lowering the press level. If Rick maintains his high compe­tence, maladaptive behavior may result because he has more competence than is optimal for the new environment. But if instead of the police a street gang moved in, he would have to increase his com­petence and be more prepared to maintain his adap­tation level. Other changes in the environment (such as arson threats) or in his competence (such as a broken arm) would create other combinations.

Before leaving Lawton and Nahemow’s model, we need to note an important implication for aging. The less competent the person is, the greater the impact of environmental factors. To the extent that people experience declines in health, sensory processes, motor skills, cognitive skills, or ego strength, they are less able to cope with environmental demands. For example, personal competence predicts how well older adults adapt after being discharged from a hospital (Lichtenberg et al., 2000). Thus, for older adults to maintain good adaptational levels, changes to lower environmental press or raise competence are needed. This point is made clearer in the Discovering Development feature. Take some time to complete it.

Because most older adults prefer to live at home, examining issues of competence and environmental press in that context is very important (Gitlin, 2003). Given the importance of creating residential alterna­tives and offering them to older adults with physical limitations, it is critical that we understand how the environment affects people’s day-to-day function­ing in the home. For example, the changing balance between competence and environmental press is a major factor in older adults’ decisions to relocate (Sergeant & Ekerdt, 2008). Additionally, the compe­tence and environmental press model has been the basis for interventions with people who have severe cognitive impairments, such as those of Alzheimer’s disease (Smyer & Qualls, 1999). To manage severe cognitive impairment effectively, caregivers must identify the right level of environmental support based on the patient’s level of competence. For exam­ple, people with mild cognitive impairment may be able to live independently, but as the impairment increases additional levels of support are needed. The model has provided the basis for designing special care units for people with Alzheimer’s dis­ease. In these units, special environmental supports, such as color-coded room doors, help people with dementia identify where they belong.