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The Psychology of Aging

I have recently gone back to school – after a break of almost 28 years! Adult study is never easy and hence I have decided to start a new category of articles under ‘An Evolving Self’ to describe my journey in returning to adult study, mid-career transitioning as well as adapting to and managing an aging body and mind to cope with new challenges and experiences as I live out the second half of my adulthood.

Below is an essay I recently did in one of my counselling psychology coursework and I wanted to publish it on my blog to share some of the research done in the psychology of aging.

These are the given questions.


PART A- Pick a theoretical concept from the Introduction to Psychology module

PART B-Elaborate on the various definitions and understanding of a psychological concept you have picked

PART C-Provide examples of how the theory you have picked could be supported or disputed


PART A- Pick a theoretical concept from the Introduction to Psychology module

In my paper, I will examine if successful ageing is dependent on earlier successful stages.

I will define aging successfully to be “conducive to a person’s well-being and life satisfaction” (Wernher and Lipsky 2015, p. 481) and not Rowe and Kahn’s original definition as “the avoidance of disease and disability, the maintenance of high physical and cognitive function, and sustained engagement in social and productive settings” (Rowe and Kahn 1997, p.433).

I will assume the words ‘older people’ or ‘elderly’ as mentioned in this essay to be Adolphe Quetelet’s definition of old age which begins around “60 to 65 years of age” (Quetelet 1836 as cited in Stuart-Hamilton 2015, p. 18 – 19).


I have chosen two psychological theories of aging. They are the ‘classic aging pattern’ by Raymond Cattell and Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development.


The “classic aging pattern” was introduced in the 1960s by Raymond Cattell who explained the distinction between ‘fluid intelligence’ and ‘crystallized intelligence’. He demonstrated that fluid intelligence describes a person’s flexible cognitive ability such as to reason abstractly and to solve new and varied problems whereas crystallized intelligence refers to acquired knowledge and skills (examples refer to vocabulary development and social judgements) (Wernher and Lipsky 2015, p.483)


Many studies had demonstrated older adults tended to perform more poorly than their younger counterparts when it comes to tasks requiring fluid intelligence as compared to tasks requiring crystallized intelligence where they (the older adults) perform equally well if not better than their younger counterparts. (Wernher and Lipsky 2015, p. 483).

This is the ‘classic aging pattern’ and it is due to a normal age-related decline in the individual’s information processing speed.  Werner and Lipsky 2015 informed the reason why older adults experience losses in their fluid intelligence is because age-related physical changes lead to decreases in information processing speed, attention, memory, and learning capacity (Werner and Lipsky 2015, p. 483 – 4)


The second psychosocial theory of aging is by Erik Erikson who proposed a stage theory of aging. He was approaching aging from a lifespan approach.  Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development stipulated eight stages. At each stage, the individual must overcome a ‘conflict’ or resolve a ‘turning point’ or ‘developmental task’ to successfully transit to the next stage (Corey 2009, p. 66) Erikson’s eighth stage is when the individual (aged 60 and above) seeks to overcome ‘despair’ and achieve ‘integrity’ (Wernher and Lipsky 2015, p. 482). At this stage, individuals who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. Successfully completing this phase means looking back at one’s life with few regrets and a general sense of satisfaction. These individuals will attain wisdom, even when confronting death.


In contrast, Erikson argues those who are unsuccessful during this phase will feel their life has been wasted and will experience many regrets. The individual will be left with feelings of bitterness and despair. From Erickson’s point of view, this stage can only be successfully reached by an individual if he has overcome all ‘crises’ of earlier stages.


PART B-Elaborate on the various definitions and understanding of a psychological concept you have picked

The positivity effect, socio-emotional selectivity theory and the model of selective optimization with compensation (SOC) are theories that purport most older adults can still  continue to enjoy high levels of affective well-being and emotional stability into their 70s and 80s (Scheibe and Carstensen 2010, p.1)


In fact, these theories postulate that older adults are increasingly motivated to regulate their emotions and have an increasing competence to do so.


The Socioemotional Selective Theory postulates that as one grows older, with a limited time horizon, an older adult will change his goals which are more future-directed to one that focuses on the present. He also tends to choose emotional rewarding relationships over conflictual ones. This might mean his social network becomes smaller but it could also mean they now comprise quality relationships and this would heighten his personal and emotional well-being. This goes to show an older adult need not fall doom to gloom and despair (as depicted in Erikson’s Stage Theory when an individual arrives at the eighth stage) as he will practise emotional processing with emotional regulation to feel well and happy.


The second theory is the Positivity Effect which was described by Mather and Carstensen 2005. It stipulates that older people will select ‘positive over negative information when it comes to attention and memory processes.’ In a recent meta-analysis of 100 studies with over 7000 participants, Reed and Chan 2014 found that the positivity effect could be reliably observed (Wernher and Lipsky 2015, p. 485). The positivity effect disputes Erikson’s stage theory of aging as it demonstrates a person in his later years of life is not resigned to “sadness, resignation and despair” because of his inability to resolve conflicts in his earlier stages (Wernher and Lipsky 2015, p. 485).


The last theory that runs contrary to cognitive and physiological decline in old age is the model of Selective Optimization with Compensation (SOC), developed by Baltes and Baltes 1990 (Wernher and Lipsky 2015, p.487).  As described in Part A, the classic aging pattern postulates an individual’s cognitive capacity, especially in terms of his ‘fluid intelligence’, will decline as he becomes older, as compared to his younger counterparts.


However, to counteract this loss in cognitive faculty, based on SOC, an individual can choose to redefine his goals when he is older to adapt to a loss of resources which in this case could be a decline in cognitive capacity or a decrease in energy. He will choose the most rewarding, meaningful or personally relevant activities and will then place his remaining reserves of time or energy to gain the most out of his selected domains so that he can achieve his goals. So, based on this model, the individual can act to age well. In the event the goal becomes unattainable, the individual can choose to ask for help or activate other unused resources to ‘compensate’ for any ‘losses’ (Werner and Lipsky 2015, p.486). This model is extremely useful to demolish any stereotype that one is too old to learn; it encourages older citizens who have a zeal for lifelong learning to continue to optimize their existent cognitive and physiological faculties.


PART C-Provide examples of how the theory you have picked could be supported or disputed

Therefore, based on the above theories and empirical studies, an individual that has lived to 60 years and over has achieved a formidable task of having surmounted many challenges in his life course.


Here are a few observations I would like to make based on some of the theories being mentioned.


I believe a knowledge of the ‘Classic Aging Pattern’ will help Singapore’s skills future course providers design better learning environments to attract older learners. The environments can be ‘manipulated’ to “facilitate undisturbed, selective attention to the task at hand”. (Werner and Lipsky 2015, p. 484) Learning in an appropriate elder-friendly learning facility also prevents ‘positivity bias’ as it allows the older learners to avoid being ‘distracted’ (Charles and Carstensen 2010, p. 14) and this increases their confidence to pick up competency skills with ease.


When I attended such a skills-future course to certify adult trainers, half of my class of 20 students were aged over 50, with the oldest being 65 years old. We were happy to receive training in a spacious, technology-enabled classroom with ample space for tables and chairs to support group learning activities and discussions (active learning) over a span of 4 months. As we came day after day, week after week, we slowly got familiar with a stable and structured learning classroom which helped tremendously to increase our confidence so we could successfully complete the course. There were lesser ‘gripes’ about ‘age differences (our youngest classmate was 25 years old). Everyone was taught learning strategies to easily recall and retain information better. We also had ample time to complete our assignments which were called ‘e-journaling’ which simply meant that our assignments comprised of periodic entries reflecting our lesson content as well as applying our work experiences to explain concepts and answer structured questions.


What worked for this course was it did not require us to produce information under ‘timed conditions’ which really does not support older adult learning.


All in all, I enjoyed my learning experience at this older adult, learner-friendly course. It helped override all the disadvantages of a declining fluid intelligence as posited by the classic aging pattern.


Whilst reviewing Erikson’s stage model of psychosocial development, I have realized older adults, instead of wallowing in despair, that they have unsuccessfully arrived at the eighth stage of Erikson theory (as they have unresolved conflicts at earlier stages), they can in fact join a Guided Autobiography (GAB) course to make peace with their ‘conflictual’ pasts.

I am guessing this is equivalent or like the “life review” Wernher and Lipsky were referring to (Wernher and Lipsky 2015, p. 483) that forces an older person to confront distressing memories in the past to come to terms with their current state of life which is deemed unpleasant and is an obstacle blocking the road to living later years happily.


Erikson’s model, also being a life stage theory of development that traces a person’s psychosocial development from infancy to adulthood, therefore permits an individual to partake in a lifelong ability to learn and to adapt to new challenges. Based on this theory, an older person can be advised to adopt new behavioral patterns and disprove negative self-fulfilling prophesies and not allow events of the past to affect his present and subsequent life satisfaction. Therefore, in support of this life stage model, I greatly feel how we age in our later years depend on our attitudes and our regular reflections on what contributes to our life’s satisfactions.


A GAB session led by an experienced counsellor can do just that. I can bear testimony to that as I had attended one. Mine was immensely therapeutic and it helped me purge several ‘skeletons in my closet’. For six weeks (6 sessions of 2 hours each), I gathered with a group of like-minded ladies who had come together to try to resolve ‘earlier conflicts’ in our lives. Themes examined ranged from family of origin to personal goals and aspirations to sexuality. Why did we bother to come faithfully for every session? I think the members had a common goal and that was to, amongst other things, resolve earlier identity crises, which had been left untreated or unresolved. It was also to understand emotional wounds, some still left gaping after the sessions were over, the causes of why it was inflicted by others, suspectingly or unsuspectingly. This natural therapy group contributed to self-growth, allowing a renewal or rebirth of oneself, to carry out the remaining of our lives, with positivity. A GAB session can also be seen by an older adult to practise SOC because he or she is selecting available, accessible resources to optimize his cognitive and behavioral well-being. The GAB sessions are within easy reach of any adults as they are held at public libraries for a token fee. They are beneficial for any mentally well elderly or older persons with unresolved life conflicts.


Nevertheless, I must comment, regardless the positivity of achievable measures and behavioral attitudes one can do to optimize aging in their later years, there are still no ‘absolutes’ to prove that one can age well. There is continuous research and no empirical studies are perfect.


To end the essay on aging on a positive note, I would like to concur with Ian Stuart-Hamilton, author of “The Psychology of Ageing”, who stresses, that “there is no single point at which a person automatically becomes ‘old’ and chronological age is in any case an arbitrary measure” (Stuart-Hamilton 2012, p. 19) Aging is after all ‘continuous’ (Stuart-Hamilton 2012, p. 18)


(2050 words)




Charles, S., & Carstensen, L. (2010). Social and emotional aging. Annual Review of Psychology,  61, 383 – 409.  doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100448

Corey, G. ( 2009 ) . Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. (8th ed.).USA: Brooks / Cole – Cengage Learning

Reed A. E.  &  Carstensen L. L.  (2012). The theory behind the age-related positivity effect. Frontiers in Psychology,  3,  3-7.  doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00339

Rowe J.W.,  &  Kahn R.L. (1997). Successful aging. Gerontologist, 37(4), 433-440.  doi:10. 1093/geront/37.4.433

Scheibe, S.,  &  Carstensen, L.L. (2010).  Emotional ageing : recent findings and future trends. Journal of Gerontology : Psychological Sciences, 10.1093/geronb/gbp132

Stuart-Hamilton, I. (2012). The psychology of ageing (5th ed.). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Stuart-Hamilton, I. (2014). Introduction to the psychology of ageing. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Wernher, I.,  &  Lipsky,  M.S. (2015). Psychological theories of ageing. Disease-a-month, 61(2015), 480-488. doi.org/10.1016/j.disamonth.2015.09.004

Note: The assignment above was submitted as part of course requirement for an Introduction to Psychology module to achieve a certification in  the Graduate Diploma of Counselling. Date of submission was 15 December 2016

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