Changes that take place as people move into the late adulthood life cycle phase can have a dramatic impact on health and well being, on how we view and are viewed by others, how we view ourselves, and our thoughts toward death and dying. While each aspect named above can be defined separately, they are actually intertwined as a whole. Our mental health, attitudes, thoughts about who we are, and outlook on the world around us can have a major impact on our health. Likewise, our health and how we feel, our ability to function independently, and the extent to which we are able to accept those changes and/or modify our lives to accommodate those changes, impacts our mental and emotional health as well. So too, family, society and culture play a role in determining how those entering late adulthood will view changes that occur in this phase of life, such as whether they are seen as highly valued and important by family, community and society, or seen as less important because they are no longer “productive” in an economic sense or “actively” contributing to the community and society. Ultimately, as research has discovered, positive outlook on life is perhaps the single most important factor determining whether or not an individual leads a fulfilling life in late adulthood.

Health and Wellness

Health and wellness is a major concern during the late adulthood phase because as we age, we are in general, more susceptible to ailments, and more fragile in a physical sense. Coping with such changes depends upon several factors. First, and perhaps the most obvious, the extent to which individuals take care of their bodies by eating nutritionally sound meals, exercising regularly and properly, and visiting a doctor regularly, can dramatically improve health and wellness in later years.  Physical changes that occur in late adulthood include hearing loss, an increase in skin wrinkles, osteoporosis in women (due to lack of calcium), brain shrinkage, slow down of the respiratory and circulatory systems, slow down of the nervous system which causes slower reaction times, deterioration of other internal organ functionality, and deterioration of the senses (such as the ability to see clearly, and olfactory taste and smell dulled). In addition, there are certain diseases that tend to occur during old age, and among those, arguably the most commonly known is Alzheimer’s Disease which results in a loss of memory, and particularly the function of short term memory. Such physical changes can increase late adulthood individual’s dependency on others, which is yet another life change to which individuals must adjust.

Successful Aging

Remarkably, there is a strong correlation between a person’s health in the late adulthood phase and their mental and emotional outlook on life around them and also on how they view themselves. The term “successful aging” has been coined as a way to describe those individuals that have a low probability of disease, high physical and cognitive functionality, and are actively engaging in life. Factors that can help lead individuals through the process of “successful aging” include a strong religious foundation, which adds a sense of community belonging, and emotional and even physical support that all contribute to an individual’s sense of well being. This sense of community also helps the elderly to cope with the late adulthood changes, and prevents the sense of aloneness that commonly accompanies late adulthood and even leads to higher suicide rates that in other life stages.

Cultural Stereotypes

There are many stereotypes associated with aging and late adulthood that vary between cultures. Stereotypes that are commonly associated with late adulthood include the idea that they are “rigid” in their thinking and do not welcome change. Another is One stereotype that is common is that older people and the elderly are either “going” senile or are senile and also suffering from dementia. Many of the elderly are viewed as depressed due to physical ailments or loneliness, or even worse, they are seen as being apathetic because they do not respond in the same fashion as those of the current generation. There are also social stereotypes of another sort, derived from the value (or lack thereof) that our society attributes to and places on the elderly. This attitude of “Functionalism” essentially values productivity of the individual above all other attributes. Functionalism also results in ignoring the elderly individuals as non-contributors to a society where an individual’s value to the culture and society is measured in terms of income rather than other aspects such as knowledge and wisdom. According to other research, the cure for such ageism is to treat each person as an individual, to challenge the stereotypes, to work and play together with those in late adulthood, to find “common ground” from which to relate to them, to recognize them for the talents they possess, and to expect “a lot” from late adults as with higher expectations comes positive expectations and increased contributions by all individuals.

Death and Dying - Personal Viewpoint

Death and dying is a subject that every person must face however it is a subject that individuals entering late adulthood must address and cope with as family, friends, loved ones go through the process of dying and death. During late adulthood individuals tend to think more about death and dying because they are exposed to the subject more often. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross [1], has identified five stages that terminally ill patience go through during the process of dying and it has been suggested that every person that enters late adulthood also transitions through these stages however, at a slower pace. First, individuals tend to deny the inevitability of dying, often ignoring or refusing to talk or think about the subject at all. This phase is usually followed by sense of anger over the idea that they are dying or that dying in imminent. Anger is often followed by a stage of “bargaining” for more time, with doctors, with God, or simply in their own mind. Depression ensues as the person starts to realize that there is nothing they can do to avoid death and that no amount of bargaining will change the outcome. Finally, the individual accepts dying as a fact and adjusts to the idea, in many cases feeling comfortable to talk about and discuss dying with others.

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Prior to late adulthood, death and dying are viewed quite differently at different stages in life. During infant and early childhood phases, an individual really does not understand the meaning of death and what it is. As an individual enters adolescence they understand the concept of death but do not believe that it will ever happen to them. Young adults have adjusted to the idea that death can happen to them and tend to take more precautions in life than adolescence, however they do not think deeply on the subject because they are preoccupied with other more immediate issues such as family, friends, children and career. During the middle adulthood phase individuals may think more about death, and may have also experienced the death of someone close, such as an elderly relative or friend. For them death and dying is a subject they can discuss however it is still viewed as somewhat far away.  Factors that can impact one’s view of death and dying during life and especially late adulthood include religiousness of individuals.

Research has found that congruence between actions and religious belief (or lack thereof) plays a major determinant in how individuals view death. For those that have strong religious beliefs and practice those beliefs, as well as those that do not have religious beliefs and stand firm on their own beliefs, both groups experienced little fear of death and dying. In contrast, individuals that were religious but not firm in their beliefs and those that were not religious but unsure of their beliefs experienced much higher levels of fear in death and dying than individuals that were firmly convinced in their beliefs.

Death and Dying - Cultural Viewpoint

From a cultural standpoint, death and dying is viewed quite differently. For example, the ancient Egyptians viewed death and dying as something that could be overcome, not permanent, and so they would built great monuments (such as the pyramids) as a place in which to bury their pharaohs, along with the pharaoh’s possessions, expecting that the pharaoh would somehow escape death or live beyond the death experience in a physical sense. Other cultures talk openly about death on a daily basis, accepting death and the process of dying as part of the natural life cycle. For these cultures, death is not an experience to be feared, but to be understood and accepted. Still other cultures, such as the general population of the United States, treat death as not a natural part of the cycle of life, accompanied by a refusal to accept death along with few traditions and rituals that surround death and the dying process.

Final Thoughts

Positive or negative outlooks can accompany late adulthood and the process of death and dying, like most stages of life. For those with a positive outlook, late adulthood tends to be enjoyable, and they tend to be more connected with society and those around them. A positive outlook also greatly enhances physical and mental well-being in late adulthood, and includes the motivation to exercise, eat properly, and get involved with those around them. Late adulthood is a life stage we should all hope to experience, armed with positive attitudes and expectations.