Theory and the Study of Gerontology, Essay Example
With regard to psychosocial changes in older adults that may be attributed solely to chronological age alone, the subject inherently does not admit to a single answer. Clearly, identifying aging processes that are “pure” and removed from the myriad elements influencing aging as a whole is a desirable objective; it would provide a template on which to better assess those aspects deriving from the external, or societal, ways in which aging is affected. Once, for example, it is identified that most elderly persons suffer impaired memory, it is then easier to trace how these losses are reacted to by both individual and surrounding culture, which in turn offers a framework of action and reaction. Nonetheless, the crucial factor is the reference to the psychosocial, and this is an arena intrinsically linked to the individuals’ interactions with the external components of their lives. Consequently, it would seem that “pure aging” is as elusive a concept as, say, “pure youth.” In both cases, and while the age range is certainly a major element, the lack of a strict dichotomy between the individual and external forces renders any definition of change due only to age remote, at best.
Further complicating the issue is how, and somewhat ironically, “pure” aging is equated with successful aging. More exactly, when attempts are made to differentiate aging in this way, what is typically employed to determine absence of, or minimal, change is the fitness of the older persons. The older person who functions at levels similar to the middle-aged person, for example, is viewed as aging successfully because those physical and cognitive weaknesses associated with aging are managed and/or so minor as to be disregarded (Dilman, 1994, p. 209).
In a sense, then, psychosocial changes do not apply because the aging, revealing no debilitating conditions, is not “aging” in the popular conception of the word.
It very much appears, moreover, that gerontological research consistently confronts the inherent challenge of how psychosocial elements are influenced by, and even influence, what is viewed as “pure” aging. For example, glandular activity is typically affected by chronological aging. Aging almost invariably creates both subtle and overt changes in hormone levels, as the frequency and amplitude of hormone pulses are altered. These are “pure” effects of aging on neuroendocrine functioning, yet it is virtually impossible to study them without taking into account a multitude of psychosocial, or merely external, factors. Stress and variations in lifestyle greatly affect hormone production and distribution, so no objective means of study is offered as to only the “pure” aging’s consequences for the individual (Aldwin, Park, & Spiro, 2007, pp. 119-120).
It must then be reiterated that, as the psychosocial involves the individual’s psychological development and interactions with a social milieu, “pure” aging is an abstraction. It exists, certainly, in terms of the distinct biological and chronological changes which occur as people age. Nonetheless, and returning to the parallel of “pure” youth, it is irrational to consider that the actual physicality of the individual at any age may be determined in a way removed from environment. “Pure” aging may be demonstrated in an arthritic condition impairing movement, yet how that condition affects the individual may be different in “different” ways, depending upon the individual’s response to it. Psychosocial reaction to this condition may be marked by withdrawal and suffering, or it may take the form of individual confrontation lessening the disability. In either case, what is important is that the “pure” aging component is itself defined by whatever response is made to it. Changes in physicality, which are synonymous with aging, inevitably translate to changes in behavior and lifestyle. Consequently, “pure” aging is essentially an empty concept.
Theories of development are helpful in understanding the realities of older persons, certainly, but with a caveat: namely, theory must never be mistaken for guideline, or recommended course of action. In this arena, as with all related to gerontology, it must be reinforced that, while the study of aging itself is of inestimable value, to attribute greater import to theory here is “ageism.” More exactly, it is necessary to be always mindful of the fact that the elderly are not inherently more suitable for study because they are a single population. The caveat is by no means redundant, as an important factor influences developmental theory in general. Essentially, with younger persons, theory is prone to express or center on potential; the individual is young, so developmental theory is applied on a foundation of possibilities. With the elderly, there is more of a tendency to absolutism because there is far less opportunity for impactful change to occur.
This acknowledged, there is ample opportunity for developmental theory to aid in better comprehending how aging translates into experience for those undergoing it. In an interesting parallel with Erickson’s eighth stage of lifespan development, it is increasingly common for counselors who treat the elderly to engage in lifespan review, in which the individuals are encouraged to actively recall and assess their pasts. This has been found to have positive effects on morale, in that the memories reinforce feelings of self-esteem and individual value (Fingerman et al, 2011, p. 604). In many cases, depression and anxiety are notably lessened as the individual, in recalling years of worth and involvement, feels empowered in those ways again. The association with Erickson lies in how his last stage of development presents models of integrity or despair. In the scenarios outlined, development theory then actually enables enhancement of quality of life, and through a direct eliciting from the individual of what they require to achieve this. Then, and clearly, there is a deeper understanding of the reality of the individual’s life provided, and this above all validates the theory in practice.
With regard to developmental theory that I personally find most satisfactory, I must first acknowledge that a variety of theorists have long provided frameworks of immense value. If, for example, Freud is widely debated, I nonetheless believe his contributions of revolutionary ideas laid a crucial groundwork upon which later theorists could work. Then, I am drawn to Erickson, noted earlier, because I admire the expansive approach he employs in relating individual stages to external forces; Erickson combines the intensely individual with that which influences it, and to my mind offers lifespan theory in a societal perspective. At the same time, I find his distinctions within stages to be perhaps too distinct, and not then necessarily reflective of real life experience.
This issue with Erickson motivates my attraction to R. A. Thompson’s work. I feel that “good developmental theory” is in a sense a valuable goal likely to never be fully achieved; individual human beings, it seems, consistently challenge the theories they themselves generate. This very challenge, however, underscores my selection of Thompson, chiefly because his work centers on biological matters and brain chemistry more than that of other theorists. Thompson does not ignore psychosocial components, but he more strategically operates on a foundation of biological science. Interestingly, the bulk of Thompson’s work addresses early development, and would then seem inapplicable to gerontology, or the concerns of the elderly. As will be seen, however, his concepts very much go to providing a deeper understanding of aging, in that the aging individual is still engaging in the cognitive and chemical processes generated from before infancy.
To begin with, Thompson maintains that brain architecture is most significantly developed before birth. The concept here is based on the irrefutable fact that, during pregnancy, brain size and function grow at rates far greater than at any other stage of life. Not unexpectedly, this developmental stage is extremely vulnerable, as factors ranging from maternal stress to lack of nutrition have profoundly negative effects on healthy growth (Thompson, 2008). The second concept relates how neural connections are constructed in the prenatal brain, and evolve throughout adolescence. These are fascinating processes, as Thompson notes that first there is a “blooming,” or vast expansion of new neural connections, followed by a “pruning” in which the brain, organizing itself, alters and retracts synaptic action based on acquired experiences. These brain functions are illustrated in a child’s acquisition of motor control and other behaviors. The third concept actually exists to reinforce this element of daily experience in shaping brain function and growth. From here, Thompson conveys the importance of sensitive and critical periods in brain development. The former refers to the ingestion of experience and knowledge over broad time frames, and in mild measures; the latter are those more intense periods wherein exposure to influences is necessary for development, as in the processes of “learning” sight.
With the sixth concept, Thompson more directly enters into aging, in that brain development is a lifelong process, and new neurons are produced in late adulthood. Similarly, another concept holds that, while brain plasticity tends to diminish with age, it is still present, and more likely to be active when stimulation continues for the adult. I reiterate that, obviously, Thompson’s work focuses on both the biological and early development. Again, however, this is the strength of it, in that sound scientific research then may be employed in assessing just how age is actually different in non-social terms. In this developmental theory, and while diminished growth is a typical result of aging in terms of the brain, what is important is that plasticity remains. In my estimation, there is also the significant fact that, for the elderly, the brain is fully equipped with experiences that have long forged synaptic reactions. Put another way, in Thompson the aging brain is not necessarily weakened, but actually more enable to function well.
Normal changes in functioning due to aging include shifts in memory, and most notably in terms of Working Memory (WM). This refers to the flexibility of the memory in regard to processing what it stores, or a state of heightened awareness and greater accessibility (Fingerman et al, 2011, p. 302). As people age, WM lessens, and often due to what may be termed an excess of cumulative experience; simply, the WM is less flexible because the memory stores themselves are so full. Then, the elderly often exhibit highly randomized memory recall. Recent events or experiences may be inaccessible, while those in the distant past are recalled with clarity. With regard to intelligence, memory is a factor as well. It is often more difficult for people of advanced age to rationally address an issue because multiple experiences or associations with it, triggered in memory, confuse the matter at hand. It is not that actual intelligence is lessened, but that the essential focus required to engage in intelligent thinking is hindered. Similarly, and likely linked to life experience, intelligence may be seen as declining simply because the individual is less motivated to engage their intelligent faculties. Intelligence is not merely a quality, but an energy; it demands commitment, and the elderly may be evincing lessened intelligence when they are actually refusing to engage in the processes themselves.
Memory also plays a role in changes regarding language. More specifically, issues with WM are likely to impair an aging person’s ability to access knowledge of language long in place (Fingerman et al, 2011, p. 392). Then, as these elements of cognition invariably and vastly influence one another, there is the development of what is known as “elderspeak.” This is the language marked by a softening of terms and tone, and a greater generality of content (De Bot, Makoni, 2005, p. 17). Not unexpectedly, a great deal of thinking and research supports that this change in language likely derives from how the elderly are actually addressed by others; spoken to in ways deliberately reflecting ideas of diminished capacities, the elderly then merely echo the language. Similar changes may be noted in regard to learning. Aging individuals have difficulty in acquiring new knowledge, a circumstance at least partially enabled by the same factor inhibiting “intelligence,” in that the individual has less motivation to take in new information. Then, learning with aging people may be marked by an overt resistance linked to age. More exactly, as the individual has extensive knowledge and experience, it is likely that new knowledge will be perceived as either redundant or of no inherent value. It is interesting to note in all of these changes how clearly the internal processes sought out as intrinsic to aging actually reflect components of character, and of character forged from a lifetime of experience.
With specific regard to memory, it seems that the enhancing of an older person’s WM must rely to stimulation. In plain terms, it it probable that the stereotype of the old person as existing within a “world of the past,” or living in old memories, is due to the simple fact that there is an insufficient encouragement for them to engage in the present. If anything is know about cognitive abilities of all types, it is that they are living processes; they are in a sense “muscles” which must be worked to remain strong. All cognition is altered over time, as each process affects the others (Zelinski et al, 2011, p. 13). Certainly, brain and/or physical degradation may be responsible for impairing memory, as disease in the form of Alzheimer’s is a vast issue in itself. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that, properly and consistently engaged, the older person’s memory would be as flexible as the surrounding circumstances require it to be. The key, of course, is that requirement, so often absent in the lives of the elderly.
As to how researching cognition in older adults is conducted, I am inclined to acknowledge, first and foremost, that research appears to be consistently improving in regard to approach. That is to say, the elderly have long been ignored in terms of developmental study, a situation no doubt arising from societal views seeking to dismiss what is perceived as an unwelcome population. Thankfully, research has lately disregarded such attitudes, and there is much to be said for the clinical investigations into cognitive abilities of this demographic. As my emphasis on Thompson illustrate, I feel that study based on brain processes and biological factors in development are profoundly important in that they provide a basis of scientific foundation no cultural perceptions may ignore.
That said, I also believe that models of research on aging must – ironically – further segregate the population if they are to address the true issues in a meaningful way. In basic terms, there is an incalculable and fundamental difference between the young person and the old person. These are not individuals separated only by an expanse of years and various changes to the physical states of being; they are virtually alien to one another, because life experience, and of any kind, creates a “different” human being. If development theory has taught us anything, it is that human beings evolve in wholly exponential ways. Experience forges or lessens abilities, and information is then refined, redefined, and distilled through the experience, which in turn influences how further experience is had. It may be said that the elderly person is in fact a host of persons, as their identity is shaped by innumerable interactions over the lifespan. This accepted, research on the elderly must then comprehend that it is addressing people who are, in a very real sense, utterly different than any other group. This is a unique population, and one requiring approaches removed from those more applicable to young people inherently subject to variables and experience not yet achieved.
To that end, I feel that gerontology research, apart from that investigating biological issues, should focus on exploration. More exactly, as the parameters applied to other age groups do not apply here, psychosocial study should be engaged in a far more expansive method, and not entail those expectations or boundaries appropriate for others. In a very real sense and modern research notwithstanding, the study of the aging is an unknown territory because the experience of each aged individual is a remarkable field of study in itself. With an open approach, research may uncover untold realities, ranging from the senior citizen virtually unchanged in abilities and attitude from youth, to the elderly person embodying the stereotype of the wise elder. We should continue to examine cognitive issues of memory, language, learning, and intelligence, but even these should be subsumed within a wider context of the totality of the individual, and what that may provide. Then, it is in this exploration of the elderly individual that a valid idea of what aging for all may mean can be achieved.
In no uncertain terms, issues of stereotypes and ageism vastly exist which invariably generate a kind of self-perpetuation. Cultures cling to ideas for comfort and, in the case of the elderly, the burden of care promotes a desire to dismiss. If a population is inherently limited, it is less deserving of attention and regard, so the society is better enabled to excuse maltreatment of this kind. At the same time, the reality exists that many older people genuinely are diminished in ability, cognitive and physical. One may seek to set aside bias, yet components exploited by the bias are nonetheless in place. The question becomes, then: how are the elderly to be addressed and worked with in a way both acknowledging typical elements of aging and ignoring ageism?
The question is difficult, but it is not unanswerable, and the answer resides in a commitment on the part of society so genuine, it is willing to fully accept age in all its manifestations, and thus diffuse the ageism linked to many of those manifestations. More exactly, no service is done for the elderly in a well-intentioned pretense they they are usually as capable as young people. Such a pretense is, in fact, “reverse ageism,” in that it discards the dignity of the aged through an ignoring of their reality. In plain terms, there is nothing whatsoever unethical or disrespectful in perceiving that elderly people are generally less mobile, less alert, and less strong than younger people; the perception is ageist only when it is employed to discriminate or deny in some fashion. We must divest ourselves of our fear of being ageist, and be confident in the typical consequences of aging even as we understand that these consequences cover a wide range. With such an approach in place, then, we remain both respectful and open to new information. Abetting such an approach, moreover, is a necessary component both inescapable and usually disregarded, in that no research or interaction of the aged should occur, in any form, without a conscious understanding on the parts of those involved that all will age. If anything may actually erode ageism, in fact, it is this single fact, so extraordinarily denied by many. Age is the only common denominator across the human spectrum. When we learn to truly comprehend this, even in youth, we will go an immeasurable distance in eliminating ageism.
In the following, this question is addressed: You are invited to give a presentation for older adults living in an independent living retirement community. Several residents have expressed anxiety about experiences of memory loss, and are worried that they might have Alzheimer’s disease. What would you tell them?
The first thing I would convey to this assembly is how I perceive that they are enabling the very things they most fear. I would make it clear that Alzheimer’s Disease is, of course, a very real condition, and I do not mean to imply that it is of no concern to the elderly. Then, they likely know many people their age who suffer from memory loss, and thus they perceive this as all the more likely occurring to them. This said, I would not devote time to discussing research or scientific investigations of the subject, simply because I do not believe such an approach would address these concerns in a helpful way. Rather, and as noted, I would emphasize first that their fears are forces which may well be generating the condition itself. The elderly are not alone in empowering a circumstance through fear, as people of all ages actually induce or invite what they fear through a kind of expectation of it. My initial response, then, is to entreat these people to confront the idea of memory loss without fear. Memory loss is real and frightening, but it must not be permitted to induce feelings of helplessness in them, for such feeling typically, and sadly, create actual helplessness.
While I would certainly recommend that those who have reason to suspect Alzheimer’s as developing in themselves see their doctors, my main thrust would be to empower. In speaking to these people, I would inform them of a reality often ignored. Namely, healthy aging is by no means merely a matter of a positive attitude and a maintenance of physical health; rather, it relies equally on social, individual, and biological influences interacting with one another (Bengston et al, 2009, p. 8). This translates to the fact that loss of memory is not necessarily caused by any single factor, which then provides opportunities to retain memory. They all know, I am sure, that tangible efforts made in a variety of situations invariably create desired effects. If they take walks every evening, they know that they sleep better and suffer less from ordinary aches. If they eat properly, they avoid digestive distress. It follows, then, that if they actively attend to memory, they enhance it.
To that end, I would urge them to set up strategies not unlike those they employ for other health matters. For example, it seems helpful to orchestrate actual sessions between themselves, in groups of any size, in which recollections are deliberately called for. Two neighbors may choose to meet every morning for coffee and, for a period of thirty minutes, “test” one another. Questions could be exchanged going to specific years in the past, and what each was doing at that stage of their life. Similar occasions could make use of photographs, films, and recordings, each set up to trigger memories regarding events or times. These “tests” should be approached as recreational, and be genuinely enjoyable. Should larger groups perform them, rules regarding time permitted to answer could be in place, as well as “brainstorming,” or the encouraging of one person’s recollection to trigger that of another. Isolating these exercises may easily add a greater sense of fun to them, but that component of enjoyment is likely to be present regardless, as people of all ages take pleasure in reminiscence.
What matters here, of course, is that they are honing their memories in the process. It is necessary that these people comprehend that they may actively make efforts which will go to enhancing their own abilities to function, which inevitably encompasses memory (Settersten, 2009, p. 467). Then, the interaction in the exercises is likely to generate social bonding to a greater extent, as revealed experiences will promote connections previously unknown. I would assert again that memory loss is a frightening idea to face, but that no good can come of passively anticipating it. I would remind these people that they are individuals who have accomplished much in their lives, and that such accomplishment goes, not to “bringing down the curtain,” but to validating how capable they yet are in confronting challenges. They have within themselves the capabilities to make efforts and maintain their cognitive abilities, certainly to an extent. It is all the more encouraging, as I would also convey, that they are capable of doing this in a way reliant only upon themselves, which must enhance their senses of esteem. I would conclude by reminding them how, in a world that expects them to turn to the young for help, this is no minor attraction.
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