The Diverse Strengths of Older Adults

The study of aging once focused on deficits and losses associated with later life, but now researchers are studying how people age in a manner defined by health, wellness, and resilience. In fact, a growing number of gerontologists now argue that resilient aging should become the primary model for aging well, arguing that the concept is more attainable and inclusive than paradigms focused mainly on physiological and functional abilities.

Dr. Matthew Fullen served as the keynote speaker at Capital University's 2019 “Active Aging” conference, where he shared his research on the importance of resilience and wellness when working with older adults.

Dr. Matthew Fullen served as the keynote speaker at Capital University's 2019 “Active Aging” conference, where he shared his research on the importance of resilience and wellness when working with older adults.

Dr. Matthew Fullen's research has found a connection between the concepts of wellness and resilience and both a decrease in internalized ageism among older adults and an increase in positive self-perception.

The study of resilient aging focuses on how older adults bounce back, or sometimes bounce forward, in the face of adversity.

Read about how AgeWell's Resilient Aging program can be implemented with older adult clients.

Relatedly, wellness research focuses on better understanding what older adults need to grow and thrive throughout their lives. When older adults view their lives holistically, and not just in terms of their deficits, it becomes increasingly possible to age well.

Our Framework for Aging Well

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Our framework for aging well is based on working directly with older adults in a number of contexts and linking this work with scholarly literature on the factors most related to longevity and quality of life. A multidimensional wellness framework emerged, with the following dimensions: (a) developmental, (b) cognitive, (c) physical, (c) emotional, (d) spiritual, (e) relational, (f) vocational, and (g) contextual.  Given the complexity of human experience, there is surely overlap and interplay between these dimensions. These dimensions can be used to guide wellness-informed clinical practice with older adult clients, and they should guide future empirical research on how people age well. 

Read more: Defining Wellness in Older Adulthood: Toward a Comprehensive Framework

Below are descriptions of each wellness domain.

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Developmental wellness is defined as cultivating a healthy, realistic attitude about the process of growing older. This includes a person’s ability to be realistic about the challenges associated with later life, imaginative about new ways of conceptualizing older adulthood, and hopeful in light of the growing awareness that older adults are resilient and possess many strengths.  It can be captured by asking, "What does growing older mean to you?"

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Physical wellness includes diet and exercise, as well as the extent to which people perceive that they are caring for their physical well-being.  It takes into account health considerations such as whether an individual has a disability, chronic illness, or chronic pain, but, more importantly, physical wellness is assessed by asking, "In what ways do you continue to care for your body?"

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Emotional wellness allows older adults to maintain hope and demonstrate resilience despite the challenges they face. Higher levels of life satisfaction and perceptions of future happiness are associated with the development of fewer mobility limitations. Emotional wellness has also been found to be more positively associated with cognitive health than physical, social, spiritual, or intellectual wellness.

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Relational wellness captures older adults’ need for meaningful relationships with friends, partners, family members, and others. Meaningful relationships are perceived as supportive, provide a sense of mattering to others, and give older adults an opportunity to extend support to others. These qualities contribute to a sense that sufficient relational resources are available to navigate later life.

Contextual wellness refers to older adults’ financial circumstances, the communities inhabited by older adults, and how living environments shape older adults’ lives. Believing that one has the financial resources to meet basic needs and maintain at least some lifestyle preferences is key to aging well. The influence of one’s environmental context is also important, such as when adapting to a new living context when additional support is necessary or  re-conceptualizing how to enjoy a familiar context when limited by a lack of mobility or transportation.

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Vocational wellness is related to the pursuit of life calling, regardless of whether the calling is associated with paid work. Rather than implying that one’s vocational identity ends when formal work expires, vocational wellness relates to finding one’s calling for each chapter of older adulthood.  For some, vocation may come in the form of an occupation, whether as a continuation of work from a previous life phase, working primarily to support oneself or others financially, or participating in a new career that fulfills a deeper sense of purpose. 

Spiritual wellness encompasses the human need for meaning and purpose, as well as participation in both individual and communal spiritual and religious activities.  It includes both the use of religious coping practices and participation in communities that provide social support.

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Cognitive wellness incorporates the need for control, self-efficacy, and engagement in cognitive activities that promote brain health and lifelong learning.  It emphasizes the link between perceived control over circumstances and older adults’ subjective well-being. Resilience, or the ability to bounce back, is also associated with cognitive wellness. Perceiving oneself as resilient can enhance a person’s perception of having aged successfully to a degree comparable with reduced physical disability.