Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
My husband and I are members of the Sandwich Generation.
Our children are both out of college, but they still have many of their possessions in our house. They have jobs and driver’s licenses, but they still call on us for support and suggestions.
My mother can no longer even do volunteer work. I have some of her possessions in my house too, but she’ll never want them back. She gave up her driver’s license years ago, when she figured out that it was too expensive to house a car in the city. (Thank you, Mom, for making that decision yourself!) She found herself an excellent progressive care facility that takes good care of her. (Thank you again, Mom!)Swapped Roles
So my roles relative to mother and children have switched. Take going to the dentist as an example. My kids may ask for reminders, but they make their own dental appointments. In contrast, I recently got an alert that my mother was ignoring advice from the hygienist about two decayed teeth. Her view was, “I’m so old, why bother.” I took her to the dentist, who told stories of people who lived to be 103, regretting the gaps from teeth yanked in their late 80s. My mother has trouble taking a long view, and of course she may or may not be right. So with my mother, I need to become more involved, just as I need to let go and become less involved with my children.
Memory versus Imagination as Sources of Empathy
For my children, I can draw on my memory to understand what they’re going through. I once attended a forum of high school students and parents, where anonymous questions from both sides were pulled from a hat and read out loud by the moderator. One high school student asked, “Why don’t you trust us?” Several parents agreed that we still remember the dumb and dangerous things we did when we were their age. Now that my kids are older, the worries are different. We remember what it was like to make the decisions that shaped our lives, but we know we are watching from the sidelines.
But for my mother, memory doesn’t serve. I’ve never experienced what she’s experiencing. Informed imagination has to take over.
There are various definitions of “very old,” but I noticed a marked change after about 85 or 86. The size of my mother’s world started shrinking more rapidly. I keep looking for information about what contributes to quality of life in the very old, both because I’d like to know how I can contribute to her well-being and because I’d like to be ready when my time comes. Observing my mother, godmother, and aunt get older feels like a dress rehearsal for my own late life.
I’m going to mention just a few factors that affect well-being in the very old, but this is just the beginning of my exploration. In my view, this question is relevant to everyone, since someday, if we survive middle age and early old age, we each become very old. Many of us also have parents who will need help through that period.
Social Network Quality
Older people who perceive that they have high-quality social networks tend to be the ones with higher life satisfaction. According to researcher Anne-Ingeborg Berg and colleagues, “Being satisfied with one’s social contacts may buffer the dissatisfaction due to the reduced functional capacity.”
The importance of social networks doesn’t set older people apart from younger ones. After all, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, Shawn Achor said that happier workers tend to be the ones that help their coworkers, and that “strong social support correlates with an astonishing number of desirable outcomes.”
But things do change as people get older. Their friends die, their energy levels decline, their awareness of time as a precious and disappearing resource may cause them to drop some contacts. Social networks tend to shrink.Shrinking social networks may be a source of vulnerability. For men especially, widowhood often starts a prolonged decline in life satisfaction. Men tend to have fewer friends than women; for many, their wives were their only close friends. When I visit my mother, I can see that a big advantage of living in an elder care facility is the accessibility of new social contacts that have had similar experiences. I’ve noticed two men, recently widowed, who seem to be getting on with life, still connected with the goings-on around them.
Researcher Howard Litwin has observed different kinds of social networks in his studies in Israel: family-focused, friend-focused, neighborhood-focused, diverse (all of the above), and restricted (those with few social contacts at all). Studies show that people in diverse and friend-focused networks have better morale and higher life expectancy than people in restricted networks. (I’m not sure what happened to family and neighborhood focused networks in the comparisons.)
One of the reasons my godmother got a little dog was to enhance her connections to her neighbors. She correctly surmised that people would get to know her when they saw her out walking Starkie, including the young children. I guess you could say that she made her social network more diverse, adding neighborhood contacts to her family and friends. She certainly was embedded in a strong social fabric the day she died, with more than 20 people, many from her neighborhood, coming by the ICU to say goodbye. Click here to see why so many people came by, including a letter she wrote to my daughter that includes the words, “The landscape where you stand, at the brink of your adult life, is so very different from mine.” I’m richer for having her as a role model for getting older and for observing the way she died.Balancing Social Exchange
Social exchange involves giving and receiving practical or financial support. Litwin argues that balanced support, giving and receiving in roughly equal amounts, is also related to well-being. However, as people get older, their ability to give goes down, and their needs go up, leading to a shift in the direction of transfers. This is another source of vulnerability.
My aunt was always the one to take care of others. Right now she is recovering from surgery and in the care of her daughters. When I watch her, I think that one of my lessons is to learn how to enjoy letting others take care of me. Maybe I’m ahead of the game, having broken my leg when my first baby was two months old. I very much appreciated the help I got from my mother, who flew east to help out. It’s hard to carry a baby on crutches. So perhaps part of being happy in old age is taking a very long view backwards as one receives, remembering that one gave plenty once upon a time. Of course, one had to do the giving back then in order to have the memories now.
More to come.
I just received a copy of Leonard Poon and Jiska Cohen-Mansfield’s book, Understanding Well-Being in the Oldest Old. I plan to review it for PPND soon.
Achor, S. (2012). Positive intelligence. Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb. 2012. Se also Achor’s recent TED talk: The happy secret to better work.
Berg, A. I., Hoffman, L., Björk Hassing, L., Gerald E. McClearn, G. E., & Johansson, B. (2009). What Matters, and What Matters Most, for Change in Life Satisfaction in the Oldest-Old? A Study Over 6 Years Among Individuals 80+. Aging & Mental Health (March 2009) 13(2): 191-201
Berg, A.I., Hassing, L.B., McClearn, G.E., & Johansson, B. (2006). What matters for life
satisfaction in the oldest-old? Aging and Mental Health 10(3), 257-264.
Berg, A. I. (2008). Life Satisfaction in Late Life: Markers and Predictors of Level and Change Among 80+ Year Olds. Dissertation. University of Gothenberg.
Litwin, H. (2011). Social Relationships and Well-being in Very Late Life. In L. W. Poon & J. Cohen-Mansfield, Understanding Well-Being in the Oldest Old (pp. 213-226). Cambridge University Press.
Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.
Four generations – what goes around comes around — here’s my mother as the middle of the sandwich courtesy of Kathryn Britton
Couple walking in the rain courtesy of s_falkow
I needed my mother courtesy of Ed Britton