Health is secondary to psychological strength in making the lives of very old people worth living, according to a Fordham professor.
Daniela Jopp, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, has been involved in several studies with faculty members from German universities to measure life satisfaction and valuation of life in the elderly.
A 2008 study measured how much people value their lives among about 350 young-old (age 65 to 79) and old-old (80 to 94) individuals living independently in the German town of Darmstadt. That study, which was published in The Gerontologist, gave valuations to categories such as hope, meaning, self-efficacy and perseverance among the elderly participants.
Findings showed that for the young-old, health issues such as visual capacity and activity restrictions were important predictors of how much they valued their lives, whereas social endeavors—volunteering, talking on the phone and being around young people—were more important for the old-old participants.
“Against our expectations, health is not really as important in the very old people,” Jopp said. “Instead, we find that psychological aspects become more relevant in the very elderly. By that we mean characteristics such as being optimistic, having a strong will to live, finding meaning in life and feeling competent.”
These psychological characteristics were investigated in a second study, recently reported to the Gerontological Society of America. Investigating life satisfaction and its predictors in a comparable sample of old and very old individuals, Jopp and colleagues found again that health was less important in old and very old age compared to psychological strengths. Even though psychological strengths were less prevalent in the very old, they had a stronger effect on the age group’s satisfaction. This was especially true for optimism: Very old individuals with high levels of optimism were especially satisfied with their lives.
Jopp’s research into life satisfaction and the elderly led her to another study, currently available online and soon to be published in a print issue of The Gerontologist. It looks at the importance of environment in predicting differences in life satisfaction among the same two age groups. The study looks at 381 elders, ages 65 to 94, living independently in a Darmstadt community.
The study concluded that the importance of indoor environmental factors, such as apartment size or living together, differs between the young-old group and the old-old group.
Living together and/or having a large apartment had a positive relation to life satisfaction in the young-old group, which had a higher level of life satisfaction overall.
However, for the very elderly, large apartments, which are typically harder to get around in, were found to be a risk for lowering life satisfaction. They also reported themselves better adapted to living alone, the study showed.
“We are looking at the link between psychological strengths and mortality,” said Jopp, who has recently received funding from the Brookdale Foundation to conduct a comparable study with Bronx centenarians this year at Fordham, “Psychological Strengths in Centenarians: Mechanisms of Adaptation in the Very Old.”