Social participation is a key element of a healthy later life; and from a life course perspective, social participation declines in later life, due to separation from employment and educational institutions, loss of partners and friends, and restrictions due to functional limitations. Thus, maintaining and increasing participation has gained attention from researchers, program administrators, and policy developers. The term “social participation” means activities that involve social exchange and choice, and volunteering is consistently included. Personal, behavioral, health and social services, economics, and social and physical environmental factors have been associated with social participation and volunteering. Higher levels of human capital, social capital, and cultural capital have been associated with higher levels of participation; and the built and social environment can facilitate engagement. Studies demonstrate the positive effects of social participation and volunteering on physical, cognitive, and psychological health of older adults. Role theory and concepts of coping as well as cognitive enrichment have been used to explain these positive outcomes. Volunteering, as a form of social participation, has received much academic attention in the last decade for a few reasons because, more than other social activities, it is altruistic. This feature may increase the health-producing benefits of engagement as well as create good for the community. It is often referred to as creating a “win-win” for the individual and for society. Individual, group, and community interventions have been developed to increase social participation. However, evidence supporting effectiveness is limited and programs are underutilized. Future directions include wider implementation of interventions and more attention to the role of environment in increasing social participation, the use of technology in social participation, and increased understanding of the pathways through with social participation and volunteering improve well-being in later life.
Nancy Morrow-Howell, Yi Wang, and Takashi Amano
Joseph A. Mikels and Nathaniel A. Young
The adult life span is characterized as a time of divergent trajectories. It is a time of compounding losses (such as physical, sensory, and cognitive declines) and is also a time of surprising growth (such as improvements in well-being and emotion regulation). These divergent trajectories present theorists with the paradox of aging: in the face of accumulating losses, how is it that as people age, they generally feel good and experience greater well-being? Theorists have grappled with this paradox and have focused on how motivational, cognitive, control, and social factors impact emotional development across the adult life span. These foundational theories have paved the way to a deeper understanding of adult life-span development, but they do not draw as deeply from theories in affective science. Some of the latest perspectives on emotion and aging offer integrative views, such as how older adults may experience different discrete emotion (i.e., anger versus sadness) from an evolutionary functional perspective. Other perspectives consider how an array of appraisal processes may change across adulthood (such as shifts in evaluations of self-control versus other-control for younger versus older adults). These newer approaches dig deeper into mechanistic explanations and underscore the need for greater theoretical integration. Later life is clearly a time of increased well-being, but the field is only on the cusp of understanding the mysteries of emotional experience in later life.
Jill Suitor, Megan Gilligan, Marissa Rurka, Yifei Hou, and Gulcin Con
Theories of social gerontology have progressed from a focus on individuals’ later-life decline to theories that emphasize the intra- and interindividual variability of later-life experiences and the ways in which such heterogeneity is conditioned by social structural, cultural, and interpersonal factors that often begin in childhood and continue to shape individuals and members of their social networks across the life course. Consistent with theories across the sciences, theories of social gerontology predict and explain real-world experiences. In the case of social gerontology, the goals of theory address a wide array of phenomena, ranging from individuals’ attitudes and motivations, social networks and social support, the actions and functions of formal organizations, the embodiment of cultural norms and stereotypes, social determinants of health, and sources of inequality throughout the life course.. As the field of social gerontology has developed, theories in the field have shown increasing complexity, particularly regarding the roles of early life course experiences, social structural positions, and interpersonal relations in explaining variations in well-being, longevity, and the quality of life across the lifespan. As part of this increased complexity, social gerontology has become increasingly cross-disciplinary, spanning disciplines such as sociology, psychology, biology, anthropology, public health, medicine, and engineering, with a strong emphasis on how each discipline can contribute to developing principles that transcend individual fields. These integrative theories of social gerontology are crucial to developing comprehensive approaches to improving the health and well-being of individuals throughout the life course. Theories of social gerontology help us comprehensively understand the aging process by emphasizing individual characteristics, social relationships, and the larger cultural contexts in which individuals’ lives are embedded.
Allison R. Heid and Steven H. Zarit
Individuals are living longer than they ever have before with average life expectancy at birth estimated at 79 years of age in the United States. A greater proportion of individuals are living to advanced ages of 85 or more and the ratio of individuals 65 and over to individuals of younger age groups is shrinking. Disparities in life expectancy across genders and races are pronounced. Financial challenges of sustaining the older population are substantial in most developed and many developing countries. In the United States in particular, employer-based pension programs are diminishing. Furthermore, Social Security will begin taking in less money than it pays out as early as 2023, and the debate over its future in part entails discussions of equitable distribution of resources for the young in need and the old. Living longer is associated with a greater number of chronic health conditions—over two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries in the United States have two or more chronic health conditions that require complex self-management regimes partnered with informal and formal care services from family caregivers and institutional long-term services and supports. Caregiver burden and stress is high as are quality care deficiencies in residential long-term care settings. The balance of honoring individuals’ autonomous wishes and providing person-centered care that also addresses the practicalities of safety is an ever-present quandary. Furthermore, complex decisions regarding end-of-life care and treatments plague the medical and social realms, as more money is spent at the end of life than at any other point and individuals’ wishes for less invasive treatment are often not accommodated. Yet, despite these challenges of later life, a large percentage of older individuals are giving financial support, time, and energy to younger generations, who are increasingly strained by economic hardship, the pressures on dual earner parents, and the problems faced by single parenthood. Older individuals’ engagement in society and the help they provide others runs counter to stereotypes that render them helpless and lonely. Overall, the ethical challenges faced by society due to the aging of the population are considerable. Difficult decisions that must be addressed include the sustainability of programs, resources, and social justice in care, as well as how to marshal the resources, talents, and wisdom that older people provide.
Li Chu, Yang Fang, Vivian Hiu-Ling Tsang, and Helene H. Fung
Cognitive processing of social and nonsocial information changes with age. These processes range from the ones that serve “mere” cognitive functions, such as recall strategies and reasoning, to those that serve functions that pertain to self-regulation and relating to others. However, aging and the development of social cognition unfold in different cultural contexts, which may assume distinct social norms and values. Thus, the resulting age-related differences in cognitive and social cognitive processes may differ across cultures. On the one hand, biological aging could render age-related differences in social cognition universal; on the other hand, culture may play a role in shaping some age-related differences. Indeed, many aspects of cognition and social cognition showed different age and culture interactions, and this makes the study of these phenomena more complex. Future aging research on social cognition should take cultural influences into consideration.
Nancy A. Pachana, Nicola W. Burton, Deirdre McLaughlin, and Colin A. Depp
Research on healthy aging has begun to address mental health issues in later life. Despite the debates about exactly what constitutes healthy aging and which are the most useful or valid determinants of this construct to study, there is substantial evidence for several determinants of successful aging, including physical activity, cognitive stimulation, and social networks. All three of these determinants support mental health, including cognition, in later life. Resilience is another construct that plays an important role in healthy aging, but it has not received as much research attention at the end of life as in earlier periods. Factors that reduce the risk of mental distress or promote resilience with respect to mental health in the face of challenges in later life remain fruitful areas for further investigations.
Bradley W. Young, Bettina Callary, and Scott Rathwell
Paralleling the graying of the baby boomer generation, there has been remarkable growth in the number of Masters athletes (adult sport participants generally 35+ years old) and Seniors athletes (55+) worldwide. The phenomenon of the aging or older athlete is an opportunity to study the psychological conditions and considerations that distinguish older sportspersons from their younger counterparts. Although the vast majority of sport psychology research focuses on youth and adolescents or young adults in a high-performance context, a critical mass of literature on middle-aged and older athletes has emerged. Much research has aimed to understand the sport motivation of older adults; this work has evolved from early descriptive works to increasingly theoretically grounded and analytically advanced efforts that seek to better understand older athletes’ sport commitment and their long-term goal striving behaviors. Another theme of inquiry relates to the nature of adult athletes’ social motivations and the role of social identity in explaining immersion into sport. Research has examined various social influences on older athletes, and specifically how different social agents and social norms come to bear on older athletes’ sport participation. Much work has interrogated how social support facilitates older sport participation as well as the unique negotiations that older adults make with significant others to sustain their experience. Another research theme has sought to determine the various psychosocial benefits of adult sport, cataloguing benefits related to personal growth, age-related adaptation, and successful aging outcomes. Although the discourse on adult sport has been overly positive, several contributions have problematized aspects of adult sport, challenged the assertion that adult athletes are models that many others could follow, and have further suggested that narratives of Masters athletes may reinforce ageist stigma.
Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Matthew D. Grilli, and Muireann Irish
The brain’s default network (DN) has received considerable interest in the context of so-called “normal” and pathological aging. Findings have generally been couched in support of a pessimistic view of brain aging, marked by substantial loss of structural brain integrity accompanied by a host of impairments in brain and cognitive function. A critical look at the literature, however, reveals that the standard loss of integrity, loss of function (LILF) view in normal aging may not necessarily hold with respect to the DN and the internally guided functions it supports. Many internally guided processes subserved by the DN are preserved or enhanced in cognitively healthy older adults. Moreover, differences in motivational, contextual, and physiological factors between young and older adults likely influence the extant neuroimaging and cognitive findings. Accordingly, normal aging can be viewed as a series of possibly adaptive cognitive and DN-related alterations that bolster cognitive function and promote socioemotional well-being and stability in a stage of life noted for change. On the other hand, the available evidence reveals strong support for the LILF view of the DN in neurodegenerative disorders, whereby syndromes such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and semantic dementia (SD), characterized by progressive atrophy to distinct DN subsystems, display distinct aberrations in autobiographical and semantic cognition. Taken together, these findings call for more naturalistic, age-appropriate, and longitudinal paradigms when investigating neurocognitive changes in aging and to adequately assess and control for differences in non-neural factors that may obscure “true” effects of normal and pathological aging. A shift in the framework with which age-related alterations in internally guided cognition are interpreted may shed important light on the neurocognitive mechanisms differentiating healthy and pathological aging, leading to a more complete picture of the aging brain in all its complexity.
Margaret Jane Pitts and Cindy Gallois
Social markers in language and speech are cues conveyed through verbal and nonverbal means that serve to identify individuals to the groups to which they belong. Social markers can be linguistic, paralinguistic, or extralinguistic in form, and can range from intentional and purposive (e.g., language selection or dialect accentuation) to unintentional and uncontrollable (e.g., vocal features that mark age or sex). They help to provide context for social organization. Extralinguistic cues are those that may be conveyed through gesture and physical appearance (i.e., skin color). However, social markers in language and speech focus on the paralinguistic (i.e., vocal cues such as pitch and tone) and linguistic cues (i.e., language choice, language style, accent, dialect, code-switching, and multilingualism) that mark social categories. Relevant social categories that are made distinctive through language and speech markers include age, sex and gender, social class, ethnicity, and many others. Scholars across disciplines of psychology, social psychology, linguistics, and communication have approached the study of social markers from different perspectives, resulting in theoretical (e.g., communication accommodation theory, ethnolinguistic vitality theory, linguistic intergroup bias) and methodological (e.g., matched-guise technique and ethnography of communication) advancements.