Views of Life: Well-Being. and Aging
Who was the investigator, and what was the aim of the study? How people see themselves is an important part of their sense of well-being. However, previous research on well-being in late life has been conducted without theoretical guidance (Ryff, 1989). Consequently, many researchers approached well-being from the perspective of loss; that is, researchers assumed that well-being, like physical prowess, was something that declined as people age. Carol Ryff (1989; Keyes & Ryff,
1998) disagreed with this loss perspective and set out to demonstrate her point. She thought that well-being is a more complex issue and that it can improve in late life.
How did the investigator measure the topic of interest?
In preliminary studies, Ryff administered numerous self-report scales that measured many aspects of personality and well-being. Her method in this investigation represented a new approach, one aimed at describing the complex developmental patterns she wanted to uncover. This new approach drew from life-span developmental theories (such as those presented in this text), clinical theories of personal growth adapted from successful techniques in psychotherapy, and various definitions of mental health, yielding the most complete description yet of well-being in adulthood.
On the basis of her research and thinking, Ryff (1989, 1991) developed a
new measure of well-being that reflects the six-dimension model discussed earlier. This new measure allowed her to obtain people’s ratings of how they view themselves right now, what they were like in the past, what they think they might be like in the future, and what they would most like to be like.
Who were the participants in this study? A total of 308 young, middle-aged, and older men and women participated. The middle-aged and older adults were contacted through community and civic organizations. All participants were relatively well educated.
What was the design of the study? Ryff used a cross-sectional design that compared young adult, middle-aged, and older adult groups.
Were there ethical concerns with this study? There were no serious concerns; each participant was informed about the purpose of the study, and participation was voluntary.
What were the results? The most important discovery from Ryff’s research is that young, middle-aged, and older adults have very different views of themselves, depending on whether they are describing their present, past, future, or ideal self-perceptions. The left graph in Figure 9.3 shows that young and middle-aged adults are much more accepting of their ideal and future selves than they are of their present and past selves. For older adults, differences are much smaller. The right graph shows a similar pattern for autonomy, the feelings of being independent and determining one’s own life.
Perhaps the most interesting findings of Ryff’s research concern the difference between people’s ideal vision of themselves and what they thought they were really like. If you carefully look at the graphs, you will notice that the differences between the "ideal self" ratings and the "present self" ratings diminish with age. When combined with similar findings in other aspects of well-being, this implies that older adults see themselves as closer to really being the person they wanted to become than does any other age. Ryff’s data fit well with Erikson’s (1982) idea of integrity.
As people achieve integrity, they view their past less critically and become content with how they have lived their lives.
What did the investigator conclude? As Ryff (1991;
Keyes & Ryff, 1999) notes, only by including all of these self-ratings will we understand people’s sense of personal progress or decline over time from their goal of ideal functioning. Clearly, people judge themselves by many standards, and these differ with age.
Young Middle Old
adult age age
Figure 9.3 Age differences in self-acceptance scores and autonomy scores in young, middle-aged, and older adults.
Source: Ryff, C. D. (1991). Possible selves in adulthood and old age: A tale of shifting horizons. Psychology and Aging 6, 286-295. Copyright © 1991 Adapted with permission from the American Psychological Association.
because some people are helped more than others, some problems are more amenable to religious coping, and certain types of religious coping may be more effective than others. Importantly, however, religious involvement seems to continue throughout the very last months of life in older adulthood (Idler et al., 2001).
Reliance on religion in times of stress appears especially important for many African Americans, who as a group are intensely involved in religious activities (Krause, 2002, 2003; Levin et al., 1994). Churches offer considerable social support for the African American community as well as serving an important function for the advocacy of social justice (Roberts, 1980). For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, led the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and contemporary congregations champion equal rights. The role of the church in African Americans’ lives
348 CHAPTER 9
is central; indeed, one of the key predictors of life satisfaction among African Americans is regular church attendance (Coke, 1992; Krause, 2002).
Within the African American community, religion is especially important to many women. The greater importance of the church in the lives of older African American women is supported by results from four national surveys of African American adults (Levin et al., 1994). The women participants reported that they are more active in church groups and attend services more frequently than do African American men or either European American men or women. However, the gender differences diminish in people over age 70; among the participants, religion became equally important for older African American men. Religion and spiritual support also serve as more important resources for many African American caregivers than for European American caregivers (Picot et al., 1997).
Many older persons of Mexican heritage adopt a different approach. Research indicates that they use la fe de la gente (“the faith of the people”) as a coping strategy (Villa & Jaime, 1993). The notion of fe incorporates varying degrees of faith, spirituality, hope, cultural values, and beliefs. Fe does not necessarily imply that people identify with a specific religious community. Rather, they identify with a cultural value or ideology.
Among many Native Americans, the spiritual elders are the wisdom-keepers, the repositories of the sacred ways and natural world philosophies that extend indefinitely back in time (Wall & Arden, 1990). The wisdom-keepers also share dreams and visions, perform healing ceremonies, and may make apocalyptic prophecies. The place of the wisdom – keepers in the tribe is much more central than that of religious leaders in Western society.
Service providers would be well advised to keep in mind the self-reported importance of religion in the lives of many older adults when designing interventions to help them adapt to life stressors. For example, older adults may be more willing to talk with their minister about a personal problem than they would be to talk with a psychotherapist. When they seek help from a professional, that person is more often their family physician. When working with people of Mexican heritage, providers need to realize that a major source of distress for this group is lack of familial interaction and support. Overall, many churches offer a wide range of programs to assist poor or homebound older adults in the community. Such programs may be more palatable to recipients than programs based in social service agencies. To be successful, service providers should try to understand life as their clients see it.