John Mahoney, who played the lovably gruff father of the Crane brothers on Frasier died very recently. Over eleven seasons, millions of us watched and laughed as he and his sons butted heads, found themselves bewildered by one another, and gradually moved from a state of near estrangement to one of affection. I came to the series well after it had begun, and several years had passed before I decided to watch it from the very beginning. Seeing the opening episode for the first time, I was surprised to learn how Mahoney’s character, Martin, had come to share an apartment with his son, Frasier; Unwillingly, following a fall in his own home, and following a two-minute conversation between his sons — who apparently didn’t think it necessary to ask their father what kind of help he thought he needed, or check what his wishes were.
To some degree, this sitcom setup reflects the reality for many families as they make decisions about the care that might be needed by an older parent. As one scholar explained:
“It is astonishing to see how often people “drift” into an unsatisfying situation with an elderly parent, just as they have drifted into other major life decisions. Some people get married, have a child, take a job, volunteer, to take a parent to the doctor every week, and even invite a parent to move in, without investigating, or considering the consequences”
(Halpern, 1987, pp. 8-9)
During my time as a graduate student (and having left my family in Great Britain to move to the USA), I was just starting to consider the possibility that my middle-aged parents might, at some point, need some form of assistance. Understandably, perhaps, Halpern’s words resonated with me, and I became interested in the conversations families have about the future care needs of individual family members. As someone whose home discipline is Communication Studies, I have to admit to feeling a sense of validation when I encountered a steady stream of research documenting the many ways in which communicating about the care needs of aging family members could help the people I love ‘age better’ (e.g., Pinquart & Sorensen, 2002). More recently, I’ve focused on a related, more inward-looking idea: that my communication choices have implications for how well I age myself (see Fowler, Gasiorek, & Giles, 2015).
My colleagues and I seized on an idea offered by Ouwehand, de Ridder, and Bensing (2007), suggesting that aging well requires ‘proactive coping’ through “the construction of environments, which make success possible while effectively dealing with losses due to aging” (p. 874). Three things struck Jess, Howie, and myself about Ouwehand et al.’s thinking. First, each of us —regardless of our genetics, our family background, our economic status— has some degree of agency about the way we age. Second, that the ability to construct environments that are conducive to successful aging may rest quite heavily on our communicative choices and actions. Third, if we take the idea of proactive coping seriously, it implies that we shouldn’t wait to start constructing these healthy aging environments until we consider ourselves old!
Recently, Jess, Howie and I developed and tested the Communicative Ecology Model of Successful Aging (CEMSA). Behind the CEMSA is a straightforward proposition: We may not be able to avoid aging, but we can exert partial control over how we experience the aging process by attending to how we speak about it. That is, how we communicate about age and aging, and how we respond to others’ age-related communication, contributes to the degree to which each of us ages ‘successfully’. We’re not suggesting, of course, that our communication is the single most important determinant of how well we age. All the same, we believe that through our communication about aging, we build for ourselves social worlds, realities, ecologies, or environments that can promote or inhibit our sense that we are aging well. Perhaps another way of putting it is that our communication helps us ‘play the hand we’ve been dealt’.
Our first studies examined seven aspects of communication that we believed might shape our emotions about aging and the degree to which we feel we can ‘handle’ growing older: (1) Expressing optimism about aging; (2) avoiding the casual attribution of problems or irritations we encounter to the aging process (e.g., the oft-touted ‘senior’ moment); (3) refraining from teasing others about their age; (4) talking with others about possible future care needs; (5) drawing on information technology to maintain connections to friends and loved ones; (6) responding appropriately to ageist remarks; and (7) being able to filter (and if necessary, ignore) media messages about aging.
Based on a sample of about 450 New Zealanders, we found that three aspects of communication seemed to be the strongest predictors of how well people felt they were aging (with the others not being associated with perceptions of successful aging). The more people reported expressing optimism about aging, planning for future care needs, and using communication technologies, the more they reported aging successfully. In the next phase of our research, we learned that people typically fell into one of three categories. Disengaged individuals reported relatively low levels of communication about aging across the board. As you might expect, engaged individuals are more open to talking about aging. In particular, they express high levels of optimism about aging, actively discuss future care needs, and try to shrug off anti-aging media messages. However, they typically refrain from teasing others about aging and from chalking up frustrations, mistakes, and problems to age-related issues. Finally, bantering individuals tended not to talk about serious elements of aging such as the care they might need in the future, but talk freely —perhaps too freely— about age in ways that aren’t necessarily helpful. For example, although banterers do express optimism about aging, they also tease others about aging, and attribute problems they encounter to the aging process. Generally speaking, individuals who are ‘engaged’ report the most positive emotions about aging, the strongest conviction that they can handle getting older, and most strongly endorse the belief that they are aging well. Those classed as disengaged report the least positive experiences of aging.
Based on our work to date (and that of other researchers), we think we are starting to better understand how communication can contribute to a person’s sense that they are aging well.
Being cheerful when you talk about aging, and explicitly speaking to the joys associated with growing older can remind yourself and others of what is gained when you grow older.
Even if you’re an avowed technophobe, consider making the most of emerging communication technologies. Using them to initiate and maintain social interaction can make a big difference in the degree to which you feel ‘in the loop’ and help you avoid feelings of isolation. In light of their importance, programs that increase the accessibility and affordability of communication technology should be pursued.
Discussing possible future care needs with your loved ones —whether it’s you or them that might need care— isn’t top of anybody’s list of enjoyable conversations. Still, taking a deep breath, and addressing the topic can make a world of difference to how equipped individuals and families feel to walk the path that lies ahead. If you’re an adult child who wants to have this conversation with a parent, you can do at least two things to boost the odds of this talk going well. First, go out of you way to broach the topic in a way that verbalizes your love and admiration for your parent. Second, be sure to stress that you respect your parent’s right to autonomy – both in terms of feeling a sense of self-determination about their future, and being able to return to this conversation at another time if they feel caught off guard (Fowler, Fisher, & Pitts, 2014).
Ageing well is no doubt easier for some than others, and we recognize that some people will find that their circumstances limit their ability to “age with agency.” With that said, we do believe that it’s important to communicate mindfully about aging, recognizing that —at least to some degree— we may be able to shape our futures through what we do and say today.
Fowler, C. A., Fisher, C. L., & Pitts, M. J. (2014). Older adults’ evaluations of middle-aged children’s attempts to initiate discussion of care needs. Health Communication, 29, 717-727.
Fowler, C. A., Gasiorek, J., & Giles, H. (2015). The role of communication in aging well: Introducing the Communicative ecology model of successful aging. Communication Monographs, 82, 431-457. doi: 10.1080/03637751.2015.1024701
Halpern, J. (1987). Helping your aging parents. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Ouwehand, C., de Ridder, D. T. D., & Bensing, J. M. (2007). A review of successful aging models: Proposing proactive coping as an important additional strategy. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 873–884. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2006.11.003
Pinquart, M., & Sorensen, S. (2002). Psychological outcomes of preparation for future care needs. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 21, 452–470.