Aging: Changing Attitudes and Successful Coping Mechanisms
Co-Sponsor: Heidelberg University Association
With age, people confront many challenges that impact overall well-being and longevity. Experts from Germany and the U.S. discussed this issue at the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI) on April 4, 2013. Dr. Hans-Werner Wahl, Professor at the Institute of Psychology at Heidelberg University, focused on the effects of attitudes towards aging in the 21st century. Dr. Laura N. Gitlin, Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Johns Hopkins University, addressed the challenges aging people face and discussed successful coping mechanisms. The event was organized in joint cooperation with the Heidelberg University Association.
“Aging,” said Dr. Wahl, “is the great change story of the world – it happens at all levels of nature.” Every generation has to cope with this inevitable process.But today’s society has transformed many aspects of this natural process. The ‘silent revolution,’ in which advances in medical treatment and technological developments have led to a larger cohort of older people, offers challenges and opportunities for individuals and society. Since negative age stereotypes are easily triggered and tenaciously prevail, it is important to change the societal mindset. Developing a positive perception and understanding the benefits of aging are two important attitude adjustments.
“Aging is Sisyphus work,” Dr. Wahl said, a process of constant loss and gain of abilities. Attitude, however, can increase individual well-being and lifespan. Scientific research shows that people with a positive ‘I feel young’-attitude can live an average of seven years longer.
Dr. Gitlin presented solutions to coping with age-related problems. She showed videos of individual cases to illustrate various challenges elderly people face. The inability to reach or bend down, are just two examples of constraints in physical functioning. Even these small changes can result in serious consequences and role disruption, causing feelings of helplessness, depression, limited social engagement, and even deterioration of health and well-being. Adaptive strategies, such as physical alterations of the home environment and active socialization, efficiently counter these effects. Minor changes at home, for example, can help with the performance of difficult tasks and maintain control over everyday activities. Engagement in activities of personal interest is another critical factor when adjusting to a changing life situation. Eventually, these strategies can help reduce functional disabilities and enhance self-efficacy. As a result, increased well-being and health can lead to higher life expectancy. Dr. Gitlin also said that scientific research on adaptive strategies demonstrates the possibilities where today’s health-care systems could and should provide more help to the elderly.
According to Dr. Wahl, a transition in societal attitudes towards aging can already be seen today. The portrayal of gray hair as powerful and beautiful in advertising, for example, has led to a perception shift towards aging in society.
The first steps in an attitude transformation have been made. But fundamental changes need to be made in at least three areas - biology, individual goals and societal perception - in order to cope with the potentials and new vulnerabilities of an increasingly aging society.