Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I’m Too Old for This Nonsense

Sharon Wildwind

I hang around with older people a lot. Plus, I’m not exactly a spring chicken. It was a natural choice then for me to make the protagonist in my current work in progress a woman in her mid-sixties.

That’s when I realized that a lot of what I knew about aging applied more to older people with health problems. What I needed to develop my character was a better understanding of healthy people in their sixties. The ones who are saging the way I want to. Along the way I found some fascinating research about aging and positive attitudes.

Myths or facts:

A. Allowing for individual differences, well-grounded older people experience less negative feelings the older they get.

B. Negative events don’t bother older people as much because they have learned to roll with the punches.

The answers:

A. In general, that is a fact.

B. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

Let’s focus on B, because—surprise, surprise—this whole idea of aging and positive life outlook is a very complicated issue.

Behavioral scientists have had many theories about why older people, in general, focus more on positive events in their lives:

--A sense that time is running out causes them to focus more on the pleasures of the moment and less on delaying gratification.

--They ignore negative feelings because they find them too hard to deal with, and choose a simpler, happier life.

--They’ve realized that they can’t change the world, so they change their attitude instead.

--They have learned a lot of problem-solving skills, which they use to effectively handle negative emotions.

--Declining mental ability and decreased problem-solving skills lead them to ignore problems. Note that this theory directly contradicts the one just above it. Science is like that.

What’s been added to those theories recently is neuro-imaging, the ability to watch the brain at work through the use of the alphabet soup like MRI, PET, and CT scans. Here are some things that the machines have confirmed and myths they have busted.

Given a choice between remembering positive images and negative images, older people do remember more positive images and fewer negative ones. Younger people remember about 50/50. The older brain, literally, does not see as many negative images, and stress response chemicals, like cortisol, are less activated by the ones they do see.

Older people are more confident than younger people that they can control their emotions. They attribute this to lifelong learning and practice. They choose to focus more on the pleasures of the day, and on gratitude.

Older people plan more, plan better, and make choices in advance to avoid emotional experiences they think might turn out negatively. For example, if they think that someone at a party is going to irritate them, they choose to stay home from that party. This is the classic, “I am too old for this nonsense,” situation.

Older people can intentionally reduce their initial emotional response to an event and can regulate their emotional reactions during an event. The exception to this is being exposed to losses that are more prevalent in old age, for examples movies that feature the loss of loved ones, or paint a negative picture of aging. In those situations, older people have a higher initial emotional response, and feel profoundly sad while watching the movie.

Older adults prefer familiar social partners and situations. They are likely to interact with a small number of people to whom they feel emotionally-close.

Older people are very successful at pre-programming themselves to not let something bother them. They work harder at a balanced emotional life than younger people do. So in essence, they have opted for a more complicated and happier life, rather than a simpler life.

High stress reduces problem-solving. Wanting to maintain a positive attitude can lead to having a positive attitude. I have to admit my reaction to reading these two conclusion was, “They needed research to figure this out?”

Older people are more comfortable than younger people with having mixed emotions and tolerating emotionally-ambivalent situations.

Older adults are poorer at detecting deceit and show less ability to assess a situation when someone has complimented them and made them feel valued. These two things make older people particularly vulnerable to fraud.

When I read that last statement, my writer’s my brain went click. Loose ideas that had been waving in the wind knit themselves into something resembling a plot. All of a sudden I knew why two characters were so angry, and what they intended to do about it. I knew what another character had done to set my sixty-something protagonist on edge, who she blamed, and why she’d gotten things so wrong. I think I can also use that tolerance of ambivalence bit. What's happening to her is not a clear-cut situation and she knows it. What's more she has sympathy for both sides of the question, and that makes it far harder to decide whose side she's on. At least until someone gets killed.

I love it when a plan comes together.


Quote for the week:

When they tell me I'm too old to do something, I attempt it immediately.

~Pablo Picasso, Spanish artist and painter, 1881-1973


Sheila Connolly said...

The first thought that drifted into my not-young mind was "I Won't Grow Up!" from Peter Pan. I wonder if there's a subtext there? Growing up means losing the intensity of emotions of youth, averaging all those extreme highs and lows. Is that good or bad?

The next errant thought was something I read in a newspaper (like I can remember which one!) this week: you can decide to be happy. Maybe that's an ability we acquire with age--simply blocking out the bad stuff and seeking out the good.

I will now go back to making lists and planning my day.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My Aunt Hilda, who'll turn 100 in April and is still (a)smart as a whip and (b)playing tennis, said a couple of birthdays ago that when people ask her the most important trait she needs to get where she is, she says, "Resilience!" I think that's right in line with what you're saying, Sharon. Sheila, I think it's good, but I wouldn't call it losing intensity (which I value and of which I still have plenty). I'd call it serenity.

Leslie Budewitz said...

A few years ago, my then 85ish mother-in-law, who worked as a nurse-anesthetist in the 1930s, attended a holistic health education class a friend of ours conducted. The students were sharing their stresses and Louise said, quite honestly, that she didn't have any. I heard this and nodded -- yes, that's how she honestly felt. Yes, she had some financial issues, and some health concerns, but nothing she identified as a "stressor." As Sharon said, she had learned -- or decided -- not to treat her concerns as stresses, and so they didn't have that effect.

Me, I'm deciding to wash them away in the shower. I'm gonna be so clean!!!

JJM said...

In short: older people have learned how to live life; younger people haven't, not quite yet. :)

Interesting article, both for the observations and the behind-the-scenes of how your story came together, thank you.

@ Sheila Connolly: of course, the actual subtext (or, rather, result) of Peter Pan's not growing up is that he'll forever be "gay and innocent and heartless" (Barrie's words), thoughtless, cruel. And he has the short attention span and memory of the very, very young. Hence he has to be reminded, even as he is taking Wendy, Michael, and John to Neverland, that they are with him. And, at the end of the book, after Tinkerbell has died (for real, this time), he's forgotten she ever even existed. Peter is a tragic figure, forever excluded from being truly human ...

--Mario Rups