Copyright 2017.Chapman University Healthy Aging Lab. All rights reserved.
Healthy Aging Lab
Humans are arguably the most ‘social’ of social mammals, so it is no surprise that the functioning of our minds and bodies are intricately tied to characteristics of our social interactions and social relationships. Perhaps one of the most potent social influences on our biological functioning is our status in society and social groups that are important to us. Such status, often measured as socioeconomic status, has been shown in hundreds of studies to be linked to mental and physical health, including the likelihood that we’ll be depressed or anxious, develop a disease, and how long we’ll live. Our research suggests that there are many biological pathways through which social status gets under the skin to affect the likelihood of poor health outcomes as we age. From hormones of our endocrine system, to proteins of our immune system, to cardiovascular and metabolic processes, all appear to be sensitive to our status in society and the quantity and quality of our social relationships.
Erik Erikson hypothesized that generativity, that is, care and concern directed towards the well-being of others, was the central psychosocial goal of development in midlife. However, research suggest that desires to be generative, that is to contribute to the well-being of others, are evident across the adult life course and remain high in old age. However, opportunities to be generative and to derive a sense of usefulness and value to others decrease as older adults shed many of the generative roles of midlife (e.g., direct parenting, mentoring and leading in the workplace). Thus, it may be difficult for older adults to maintain a sense of usefulness and the feeling of being generative. A loss of these feelings may have profound implications for the nature of the aging process. Our research indicates that older adults with low feelings of usefulness are more likely to have less favorable trajectories of physical functioning and are at greater risk of dying as they age into their 70s, 80s and beyond.
Feelings of usefulness and generativity may be linked to more than just a physically healthier older adulthood. Older adults who feel more useful and generative are also happier, more socially and physically active, and more connected to others. Such feelings are also more than mere perception - older adults who feel more useful and generative also devote more hours of their daily life to helping others, through both formal volunteer roles and informal roles as caretakers and helpers to family, friends, and those in their social networks and communities. So a generative life may not only benefit the older adult giver but also those around them..
Our research on the mental and physical health benefits of feeling generative suggest that society may be well-served by identifying ways to promote perceptions of generativity. Such efforts might not only benefit the well-being of older adults but also those they contribute to through generative activity. One way to promote feelings of generativity in life might be to engage older adults in roles that provide an opportunity to make meaningful contributions to others. The Experience Corps Program is an intergenerational civic engagement program in which the time, wisdom and energy of older adults is used to promote academic and behavioral well-being in young children. Currently operating in 21 cities across the U.S., the program aims to engage older adults as tutors and mentors to help boost the academic performance of elementary schoolchildren. A rigorous evaluation of the potential of the Experience Corps program to enhance academic performance in young children and mental and physical well-being in older adult volunteers is currently being conducted on the Experience Corps Program in Baltimore, Maryland.This research study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, is the largest randomized controlled trial (experiment) of a civic engagement intervention ever conducted. Dr. Gruenewald is part of a team of researchers who are exploring the psychological and social consequences of Experience Corps participation in older adult volunteers and the potential implications of such effects for older adults’ functioning and health.