Development and Experience of Optimism and Resilience in Older Adults
Sunita Menezesα & Tissy Mariam Thomasσ
Positive ageing is a process of feeling good and maintaining a positive attitude, keeping healthy and being fully involved in life, rather than considering ageing as frailty or functional decline. Using a case study approach the present paper aimed to comprehend the ways in which the life experiences of older adults facilitated the development of optimism and resilience, the changes in their lives and the influence on their ability to cope and adapt to these changes. The participants were older adults 70 -80 years, men and women, retired, whose spouses have expired at least a year ago and were living with family in Bangalore city. They were interviewed using a semi structured interview schedule developed by the researcher and validated by experts. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis was used to analyse how they make sense of their experiences as older adults. Results show that optimism of older adults stem from factors such as readiness to appreciate, positivity and a sense of hope and determination. They were also resilient in challenging situations because of their belief in a higher power and supportive family and friends. The study has implications for promoting a positive and healthy attitude towards older adults and to help them to move forward with hope and courage.
Keywords: positive ageing, older adults, optimism, resilience.
Author α: PhD Scholar Christ (Deemed to be University) Bangalore, India.
σ: Assistant Professor University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India.
The progressive ageing of the world’s older population is perhaps one of the most significant demographic changes in modern times. Ageing is a universal process common to all species of the animal kingdom. In the last few years, a majority of the older adults define successful ageing in multidimensional terms which encompass physical, psychological, functional and social health (Phelan, Anderson, LaCroix and Larson, 2004).
When adults retire or cross 60 or 65 years of age they are perceived to feel old. At this time there is also a decline in physical health and they are not as active as before (Gorman, 1999). Generally, people have the impression that older adults are irritable, forgetful, lonely, withdrawn, helpless and dependent and have physical illnesses. People have often failed to notice, however, that older adults continue to be positive, have hope and live fruitful lives in spite of mental and physical disabilities, loneliness or abuse (Davies, 1994).
Also after retirement, there is a change in lifestyle and economic status which could result in a change in personal identity. Older people have less to contribute in terms of economic resources and this often makes them feel powerless and incapable. But at the same time, they have much to share in terms of wisdom and experience. Those who age positively live longer and healthier lives, and enjoy a good quality of life (Davies, 1994). If older adults are encouraged to focus on successful ageing, then the ageing process can be a positive experience. There is a low likelihood of disease, appropriate physical and cognitive function, active involvement in life, happiness, well-being and positive affect (Mezey and Fulmer, 2002; Phelan, et. al.,2004; Butler and Ciarrochi, 2007; Versey and Newton,2013; Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015).
There has been a rapid increase in the ageing population all over the world and India is not immune to this transaction. Statistics indicate that out of a population of 1.22 billion people in India, 90 million comprise of older adults who are dependent on their children both for care and financial assistance (Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015). For generations, older adults in India have generally turned to family for support as they get on in age and most especially in a crisis, but in recent times the Indian family system has been undergoing many changes. The traditional joint family is on the decline not just in urban India but in rural areas as well. Due to urbanisation, families are becoming smaller and often find it difficult to care for an older parent (Prakash, 1999; Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015).
On the other hand, researchers have noted that as a tradition in India, the majority of older adults live with their children and many of them continue to be dependent on their children for financial and social support. In addition to this, the unavailability of adequate health care facilities or programmes for the older adults, only adds to their dependency on their families for care and support. In view of this ‘the Maintenance and Welfare Act of Parents and Senior Citizens was enacted to enforce family elder care and prevent elder abuse’ (Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015).
Generally, the opinion of younger individuals about older adults varies. While many of them perceive the older generation as a burden, a few young people do value their presence when they need advice regarding family issues, suggestions related to education and also care when someone is ill in the family (Raju, 2011). Considering that in 2012 there were about 100 million elderly in India and this is expected to increase to 323 million by 2050 which would be 20 percent of the total population (HelpAge India, 2014). Prakash (2012) emphasised the need for an attitude change towards older adults from considering them as a burden to seeing ageing as another phase of life and to appreciate the resources that older adults have to offer. In this way, there will be more scope for the development of active ageing programmes and suitable benefits and policies for older adults.
MOVEMENTS SUPPORTING THEIR RIGHTS
The rapid growth of the elderly population highlights elder care as an important issue in India (HelpAge India, 2014). The issues of elder security and well- being are becoming a matter of concern. There is a need to take care of the elderly in terms of social and mental well -being, economic and social security and elder abuse. Considering all these factors there seems to be a need to understand the experiences of the elderly in order to adopt effective mechanisms by which the elderly will be cared and respected and will be able to live a life with dignity (Kumar, Das and Rautela, 2012; Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015).
To the advantage and benefit of older adults in India, since the 1990’s and more prevalent today, there has been a rapid increase in research projects for the benefit of older adults; with a specific focus on successful and healthy ageing. In 1999, the Government of India in consultation with professionals in the field of gerontology had finalised a national ageing policy, NPOP (National Policy on Older Persons), that proposed to provide older adults with their basic needs of food, health and security. The NPOP had problems with implementing their plans and decision, largely because of lack of funds; but in a way, it has been instrumental in creating a legal provision that adult children take care of their ageing parents (Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015).
Some of the contributions in the field of gerontology are health and ageing of older adults and in particular women; the promotion of the rights of older adults; security; elder abuse and old age homes, to name a few (Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015). These researchers have emphasised a need for such studies and this research study derives relevance in explaining these needs through the first-hand experience of the elderly; which indicate that we need to focus on the above important issues in order to facilitate successful coping.
It has been observed that, even though old age comes with its share of problems, it is not necessarily synonymous with the deterioration of physical or mental capabilities. Several older adults are happy, enthusiastic and actively involved in various activities. Therefore, the need to focus on the positive experiences of ageing in order to help older adults maintain an optimistic attitude toward life.
The importance of this subject has been highlighted by the increased concern about the welfare of older adults; which is indicative by the frequent discussions about the care and protection of older adults at seminars and conferences, in newspapers and magazines and even broadcasted on the radio and television in this country.
Often, the general attitude of mental health and geriatric professionals towards older adults is not a very positive one as they often fail to recognise the rich potential of older adults and their contribution to the family and society. Society also views old age as a burden and ageing as a struggle (Prakash, 2012; Raju, 2011). Keeping this in mind the researcher felt that the first-hand understanding of their experiences would help to challenge existing normative or structural assumptions. Therefore, phenomenology was appropriate for this study because the researcher has explored the subjective experiences of older adults in order to understand them from their perspective.
This study aimed at answering the following research questions:
- In what way do the life experiences of older adults facilitate the development of optimism and resilience?
- How have their lives changed and how does this influence their ability to cope and adapt to the changes?
Therefore this research study examined the life experiences of older adults which have contributed to optimism and resilience and the conditions that facilitate optimism and resilience. Through interviews, they were given a chance to communicate their lived experiences in order to help promote positive attitudes towards ageing and older adults.
For this study older adults were approached using purposive sampling where participants were selected based on the predetermined criteria related to the research objectives (Cresswell, 2007; Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2010).
The participants were 14 older adults, both men and women in the age group of 70 to 80 years, retired, middle class (Kuppuswamy, 2014), whose spouses have expired at least a year ago and were living with family in Bengaluru, India. Since the participants were residing with family, this facilitated a familiar environment with less structure and minimum restrictions. They had no significant physical or psychiatric illness, a minimum of 10th grade education, could speak English and had retrospective memory.
A semi structured interview schedule was developed, based on a review of literature, theories such as Psychological Capital (Luthans, Morgan and Avolio, 2015), Psychosocial theory by Erikson (Santrock, 2007) and Gerotranscendence – a positive approach to ageing, (Tornstam, 2005). Experts in the field of gerontology had been interviewed and older adults were met informally to get appropriate questions for the interview schedule. Past experience of the researcher in dealing with older adults was also utilised.
Face validity of the semi structured interview schedule was ascertained by seven professionals in the field. Experts were chosen based on their expertise in the field and their interaction with older adults. Most of them were academicians who hold a doctorate degree in psychology with at least five years of experience in teaching and guiding research scholars, and a few others were working in non-governmental organisations. The experts were asked to assess the appropriateness of the questions, the suitability of language used and to review the cultural and ethical correctness of the schedule.
Participants were contacted and were briefed about the research study. Informed consent was taken and a time to meet was fixed. The participants were interviewed at their residences; were assured of confidentiality and guaranteed the anonymity of their identifying information. In-depth personal interviews were conducted over two to three sessions and each lasted for about 90 to 120 minutes.
The semi structured interview schedule was used to guarantee a naturally-flowing conversation and, at the same time, ensure the focus and direction of the interview. The semi structured interview schedule contained questions about the following broad areas namely their life experiences, critical incidents and coping. Some of the questions were, ‘What are some of the memorable positive events that have occurred in your life? How have you changed over the years? Can you reflect on these significant changes in your life? What is it that gave you the strength/ determination to move on?’
The participants were also given a journal to note down points or reflections that they thought of after the interview. They were offered psychological counselling services if needed during or after the interviews. They would also have access to their own transcripts and results of the study (APA, 2014).
The participants were reassured that the data will be used only for the purpose of the study and they may be contacted again for clarifications during the process of interpretation and analysis. The researcher maintained a journal with observations from the field and reflections during and after the interview. Interview notes, tape recordings, observations and journals maintained by the participants were used for analysis (Miles and Huberman, 1994; Cresswell, 2007).
An independent coder was used and inter coder reliability was established. Member check was also used where participants were contacted to check if the researcher had accurately interpreted their experiences. Further analysis of the transcripts was carried out and cross case analysis has been presented.
4.3 Data analysis
Data were analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. The analysis was carried out using the guidelines given by Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2010). The transcribed interviews were coded by the researcher and an independent coder. Each transcript was read in detail and patterns or themes were identified. An inter-rater agreement for the themes was established using kappa statistic. The agreement was found to be 85 per cent (a score above 0.6 or 60 per cent is considered to be a good level of agreement) (Miles and Huberman, 1994).
The themes from each transcript were then compared and contrasted to identify common themes across multiple participants in the study. A more interpretative description was developed between the coded data and the researcher’s psychological understanding of what these themes would mean for the participants. A structure was then developed to establish the relationships between themes. The data was organised in such a way so as to enable easy access of transcripts during analysis, right from the initial comments, clustering and development of themes.
Finally, all themes were analysed based on the researcher’s experience and interpretation. This was substantiated by verbatim extracts from the participant interviews.
Supervision and an audit were done to validate the research study and to support the credibility of the findings and interpretation of results.
The researcher maintained a journal with observations from the field and reflections during and after the interview, in order to bracket off any personal biases (Miles and Huberman, 1994). An independent coder was used and inter coder reliability was established.
Member check was another procedure through which validity of the data analysis was done. When the theme generation was being done and the coding framework was developed the participants were contacted to ensure that their experiences have been accurately represented by the researcher (Cresswell, 2007).
V. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Older adults who are 60 years and above are considered part of the older population (Prakash, 1999). Ageing does not come without its share of struggles and challenges and is characterised by both physical and psychosocial changes and adjustments, such as frailty and ill health; retirement and a change in lifestyle and changes in the relationship between the older adult, the family and society. But at the same time old age can also be a time of reminiscing and self-discovery, a time to fulfil the quest for spiritual pursuits and self-transcendence.
Research indicates that when older adults age successfully there is a low likelihood of disease, appropriate physical and cognitive function, active involvement in life, enhanced happiness, well-being and positive affect (Fulmer, 2002; Phelan, et. al.,2004; Butler and Ciarrochi, 2007; Mezey, Versey and Newton, 2013). Some participants had not even thought of the ageing process. This study was an eye opener for them. They still felt young at heart, continued to think young and interact with youngsters.
All the older adults who were part of this study were eager to share their experiences and spoke at length giving detailed explanations of their experiences right from childhood to old age. All the participants have had painful and challenging life experiences, but thought there have been set backs, participants seem to have coped successfully with their struggles and disappointments through life. Their life experiences have changed them and made them better people. They believed that life had to be lived, felt good about themselves and their positive attitude kept them resilient when faced with challenges and adversity.
Table 1: Participant Demographic Data
Detailed analysis of the transcripts led to emergence of themes which have been classified into two super -ordinate themes, namely Optimism as an Outcome of Positive Ageing and Exemplary Forms of Resilience in Older Adults.
Table 2: Overview of Themes Generated
Optimism as an Outcome of Positive Ageing
Readiness to appreciate
Positivity the key to contentment
A sense of hope and determination
Exemplary Forms of Resilience in Older Adults
Belief in a higher power
Supportive family and friends
The super-ordinate theme Optimism as an Outcome of Positive Ageing emerged from a readiness to appreciate, positivity the key to contentment and a sense of hope and determination and the super-ordinate theme Exemplary Forms of Resilience in Older Adults developed from belief in a higher power and supportive family and friends.
Theme 1: Optimism as an Outcome of Positive Ageing
Optimism is the ability to persevere with a hope to succeed not just in the present but in the future as well. Optimism reinforces self-efficacy and hope (Luthans, Youssef and Avolio, 2007).
The super-ordinate theme ‘Optimism as an Outcome of Positive Ageing’ emerged as participants expressed their positive attitude and hopefulness in life not just when life was happy and comfortable but even in times of adversary and hardships. Positive ageing is the process of feeling good about oneself, maintaining a positive attitude, keeping healthy and fit and being fully involved in life as one gets on in age. Ageing is associated with several rewarding and fulfilling experiences, but it is also a time when there are significant changes in almost all areas of life; such as changes in physical functioning, retirement, social networks and also bereavement. Maintaining a positive attitude during the ageing process is important as it helps one not just to feel good but also to be in control as he prepares to face another phase of the life cycle. Those who age positively enjoy a good quality of life and live healthier and longer lives (APS, 2012).
The sub-themes that led to the emergence of the super-ordinate theme Optimism as an Outcome of Positive Ageing were: readiness to appreciate, positivity the key to contentment and a sense of hope and determination. Older adults look at successful ageing and well- being as a process they go through as they adapt to life changes with the goal of continuing social function.
The psychosocial theories view successful ageing as a dynamic process and are the result of one’s experiences and development through life. Successful ageing is a result of being satisfied with one's past and present life, which includes happiness and zest for life, determination and resilience, self-concept, mood, morale, relationships between anticipated and achieved goals and overall wellbeing. Effective social functioning is also an important domain of successful ageing (Bowling and Dieppe, 2005).
Readiness to appreciate: Older adults were at a stage where they were living a retired life and enjoying grandparenting. They were very grateful to God for being with them and keeping them strong in times of difficulties and trials. Feeling grateful has helped older adults acknowledge their family and friends who have been instrumental in helping them through difficult times and have made a difference in their lives. They cherish the experiences they have had with family and hold on to happy memories.
One of the participants said, ‘… many times ups and downs in my life… God was there…God has helped me throughout my life…never let me down’ (IR, personal communication, August 18, 2016). Another participant AL feels grateful for the abundant blessings he has received and said, ‘God has been so good to me… both my girls are married well, and I have everything a person could probably want’ (personal communication, July 21, 2016).
Participant MA has countless blessings to be thankful for and acknowledges the goodness in her life as she said, ‘I sometimes have regrets, but on the whole, I’m satisfied… gone through ups and downs but now I am completely content. I don’t have to worry about anything...’ (personal communication, May 13, 2016).
Positivity the key to contentment: Eighty percent of the participants worked hard to keep themselves physically and mentally active and healthy, which in turn enhanced life satisfaction. They were ready to take on the challenges and opportunities that came their way. Seventy five percent of them had a very strong positive attitude towards life. They were happy, satisfied and hopeful people. Even though they had trials and difficulties, they did not dwell on the negative and felt that they were responsible for their own happiness and a happy life was in their hands.
JA attributes his success to his optimistic attitude and a strong determination. He says his ability to be optimistic is God's gift to him. Whenever he is faced with any challenge he thinks positively and takes up the challenge. In his words, ‘…I shall see no failure… it was in me I think, it was a God given gift… any challenge I said, do the difficult job first…then we’ll go for the easier one… I never gave up and always went through…’ (personal communication, October 19, 2016).
Participant SA said ‘I can’t help what is gone, whatever is past is past. Now I have to see the future what I can do. But I like to work hard and come up… God has kept me in good health. I call it the pleasures of ageing’ (personal communication, June 18, 2016). Another participant said, ‘There is meaning to life, see it’s a beautiful earth, God has given you a place to live and enjoy, see my rose garden, you be with nature you’re always happy’ (IR, personal communication, August 11, 2016). Participant AL enthusiastically said ‘I am one of those few who is still young. I still gel with boys and girls. I don’t really think I have any disappointments, I enjoyed life and I still enjoy life (personal communication, July 14, 2016).
SU said, ‘What’s within me that makes me feel young… I think it's optimism. I want to lead a good happy life… I have that positive nature, I’m a happy person. I believe in the goodness of humanity…be contented with what you have... life is so beautiful...You have to be positive, loving, giving in the society; what you have learnt you have to share it with society…’ (personal communication, October 25, 2016).
A sense of hope and determination: After the death of their spouse, their lives had changed. Life took a different turn, life became serious and finances became a problem so 70 per cent of the women participants were forced to find employment to supplement the family income. It was a difficult process, children had to be educated and cared for, they were grieving but they had to survive. They felt very unprepared and incapable of coping with life’s demands. But for the sake of their children, they took courage and learnt to adjust and cope.
In the words of participant MA, ‘When he died the thought of suicide came to my mind… thought no one is there to look after the children so I must be strong. I have to take care of everything…I took courage,,, for my children’s sake I have to live and look after them… that pulled me together’ (personal communication, May 13, 2016).
The strong determination of participant IR has kept her active and on the move. She shared, ‘Till God gives me health and strength I like to serve people, I like to serve God, I like to do my work and be independent. I don’t want to be a burden to anybody... So, till I die I want to stand on my own legs and want to go in peace. I have got very good will power. I have a strong determination and always wanting to be successful’ (personal communication, August 18, 2016).
SU has experienced sorrow and heartache especially during the death of her youngest daughter’s husband at a very young age. She was heartbroken and found it difficult to come to terms with the death, but her positive nature and her supportive husband helped her to be a pillar of strength to her daughter and grandchildren in their hour of grief. When her husband passed away 10 years ago her daughters were her strength and support. She now believes that death is inevitable and one has to face it and move on. One needs to focus more on life and live life to the fullest.
VA seems to be a very determined and optimistic person. She uses self-talk and makes sure she thinks positive; pushes herself to do things and has a strong will power. She feels that one should make the most of life when they are able to. In her words, ‘I have self-confidence…I will do it…will power… I have the guts to do it… we all have the capacity… we can do it…’ (personal communication, April 9, 2016).
SA had innumerable struggles from a very young age. He was determined to do well for himself. He did not wait to be helped; he created opportunities for himself and made optimal use of the resources at hand. He slowly began to believe in his capabilities and gain confidence in himself. He shared ‘I have worked very hard…18 hours I have worked… workshop and studies both went together… 4 hours I used to spend for this PUC … 14 hours for workshop’ (personal communication, May 18, 2016).
VN was highly motivated when it came to learning shlokas. She says, ‘To learn new things, there is no age… instead of sitting and wasting our time…can learn… at present, I am able to learn…I have got the capacity…’ (personal communication, April 9, 2016)
The developmental theory of positive ageing, Gerotranscendence by Lars Tornstam (2005) sums up meaningfully the experiences of the older adults in relation to the positivity and gratitude in their hearts along with a sense of hope and determination that keeps them focused and enthusiastic. Tornstam describes old age as a shift from the materialistic world to a more integrated and transcendent view and highlights growth, interconnectedness, increase in life satisfaction; understanding and wisdom that emerge from years of life lived. The theory also explores the relationship between transcendent views and spirituality in later life which is applicable to the themes that follow. This theory is special because it explains the passivity and withdrawal of older people from society as another way of ‘being’, termed as transcendence which leads to an improved quality of life.
Theme 2: Exemplary Forms of Resilience in Older Adults
Resilience is a positive way of coping with stress, conflict or change and helps one bounce back when faced with problems and adversity (Luthans,Youssef and Avolio, 2007).
The super-ordinate theme ‘Exemplary Forms of Resilience in Older Adults’ was synonymous with all participants. Though they all went through trials and difficulties and had to face challenges in life, they had the resilience and a positive attitude that helped them cope effectively. This was largely because they had a strong faith in God or in a higher power. Ten of the participants had lost their spouses after a prolonged illness, for three of them their spouses passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly due to a massive heart attack and one spouse died in a tragic accident at a very young age. But their past experiences had made them strong and capable of facing hardships and they had a resilience that helped to pull themselves together in spite of their loss and grief. They had the ability to laugh and use humour and also turned to support from family and friends to help them cope.
The sub-themes that led to the emergence of the super- ordinate theme Exemplary Forms of Resilience in Older Adults were: belief in a higher power and supportive family and friends. These seemed to be the key motivators in the lives of the participants.
Belief in a higher power: Spirituality is a transcendent belief in some higher power, drawing on inner resources of strength and peace, experiencing a connection with self and others, personal search for meaning and purpose (Sadler and Biggs, 2006). 90 per cent of the participants expressed that God and a deep spirituality were an integral part of their lives. They had a strong faith in God and felt if God had given a problem he also gave them the strength to carry it through. They all spoke with a deep conviction and had a profound spirituality; a philosophy that they strongly believed in and gave them the strength to keep going.
Researchers Wayne, Cascio and Luthens, 2014, have found a strong connection between spirituality and older adults, which seems true in the case of the participants. SA who expressed that he was not so religious in his younger days, but now he prays and reads the Koran along with the translation. He said, ‘I was not that much religious… But I became more religious once I retired and returned home, things changed… I was moving more with religious people… I became more of a religious person... That time I did not have much time also to become religious, but now I have a lot of time… I don’t think we were so much closer to God, as we are closer to God now’ (personal communication, June 18, 2016). Another participant shared ‘As I become old, I have my God who will take care of me. I feel I have a strong faith. So far, he never let me down’ (SU, personal communication, October 18, 2016).
In the words of participant MA ‘I became closer to God. My total dependence was on God... I sit and pray… I feel real peacefulness, in my mind and heart also’ (personal communication, May 6, 2016). Participant SU shared, ‘I was also religious in the sense I used to pray… we have to pray at least 5 times… I pray God that everybody is happy... spiritual contact is needed. The goodness in you comes only by the spiritual’ (personal communication, October 15, 2016).
Supportive family and friends: Participants had pleasant memories of their childhood years; the fun and laughter and holidays with grandparents, siblings and cousins. The bonding of siblings gave them a sense of belongingness. But more importantly the closeness that developed as children helped later on in life when there were struggles, it gave them the assurance that they were not alone; and they also had the support of their siblings, who cared.
In trying times older adults turn to immediate family and friends for support (Phillips, et. al., 2000; Mezey and Fulmer, 2002). This is very appropriate to this study. All participants had a family, especially their children and grandchildren whom they could fall back on and this was a tremendous help and support. They felt enthusiastic about ageing gracefully, being independent and in control and at the same time being with family and friends.
A few of the participants had children living abroad and they appreciated phone calls assuring support. They would freely express their feelings without any inhibitions and this made ageing so much more endurable and manageable.
Research indicates that supportive grandchildren enhanced optimism and well-being in their grandparents and made them feel important as well. Older adults felt an emotional bonding with their grandchildren and would consult them regarding important decisions. Grandparenting left them feeling more energetic, hopeful and improved family relationships (Lou, 2010). All the participants cherished their close-knit families and as they got older their children and grandchildren were their support and they, in turn, were also an inspiration and support to them.
SU said ‘I have given my children the best … the closeness of the family. They value what I have done for them and I also appreciate what my 3 girls have done for me. My grandchildren, they are diamonds… As a family, we are very close… I have a happy family… not just when I was young, even now’ (personal communication, October 18, 2016).
Research shows that retirement, the death of a loved one and impaired health can decrease the quality of life (Butler and Ciarrochi, 2007; Chen, 2001; Gwozdz and Sousa-Poza, 2010). This was not the case for almost all the participants because the family played a major role in supporting the older adult when in a crisis. Studies indicate that in India, for generations it has been a tradition that most elderly parents reside with their adult children, who not only provided for their personal needs but provide monetary and social support as well (Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015).
But on the other hand, it has been noted that in recent times the traditional family is on the decline, now just in urban India but in rural areas as well. Due to urbanisation families are becoming smaller and often find it difficult to care for an older parent (Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015; Prakash, 1999). In a way this was partially true for participants in this study as many of them mentioned that often their children and grandchildren were busy with their own lives and they did feel lonely at times; but when in a crisis their families were always there to support them, especially during the death of their spouse, when life seemed so bleak and hopeless.
Participant MA expressed, ‘I did not face any problems as such because I was a widow, my in-laws were very good to me…the children were very much cared for… they would make sure the family would be together…’ (personal communication, May 13, 2016).
Participant HE, who lost her husband in a tragic accident, a few years after she was married, was devastated at first because she was left to care for two small children. She was able to cope with her loss and make a life of her own because of the help and support she got from her family, especially her mother.
Apart from family, friends and neighbours were also a support for the older adults. They got a lot of satisfaction going out for parties and meeting friends. This is substantiated by the activity theory which states that some amount of activity is necessary to live a fulfilling life irrespective of how old the person is, as it is an important factor in keeping healthy and enhances life satisfaction. People who are mentally, physically and socially active adjust better to the ageing process (Busse, 2002). Similarly, this was reflected in a few participants who at times felt that they needed to be independent and not burden their children; so they looked to other sources of support such as neighbours and friends. They went for regular walks in the morning or in the evening with their neighbours and they exchanged thoughts on the joys and struggles of ageing. At times they also met up with friends for a meal or had long telephone conversations with them. Participant IR confidently shared that she does not feel insecure when she is alone at night. She said ‘I have very, very good neighbours who support me anytime. Even at midnight if I get sick, people are there to help me’ (personal communication, August 4, 2016).
The life experiences of the participants were explored as far back as they could remember, from their childhood, their transition into adolescence, as they matured into young adults, their midlife experiences and then their present state as older adults. For all the participants, the family was the strongest support and the focal point of their lives. The unconditional support from their families helped them develop the positive aspects of their personalities such as being optimistic, enhancing their belief in themselves, being resilient in times of trials and hardships and belief in the Divine. In the process of experiencing and coping with trials, challenges and hardships in life their faith and trust in God had strengthened.
Through their life experiences, their perspective to life had changed, especially after critical events such as the death of their spouse, retirement and after their children left home. Though all of them were living with family, in today’s fast paced life, time was a rare commodity and they did feel lonely at times. On a personal basis, most of the older adults had learnt to be more accepting of the situation, were grateful for the help and blessings they received, had learnt to take the initiative to do things for themselves and were more accommodative. They stressed the importance of hard work, integrity, discipline, honesty, self-control and fear of God. They were grateful for family and friends; and valued life and relationships. Their experiences had helped them become down to earth and spiritually rich.
All of them felt that at least in a small way they needed to share their experiences, values and life’s lessons with the next generation. Though they had aches and pains they were still energetic and enthusiastic and cherished things in life that they had earlier taken for granted. They had begun to look at life differently and were able to understand the struggles and challenges experienced by their children, because of their own personal experiences.
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that the participants were optimistic and enthusiastic older adults who believed in making the most of life. They felt young and energetic in spite of all the struggles, trials and difficulties experienced by them at different stages in their lives. In the process of life’s journey, they had developed a profound spirituality that helped them stay strong, optimistic and resilient in challenging situations.
Positive Psychology focuses on enhancing a positive state in a person and not just alleviating stressors or reduction of negative states. By understanding the positive experiences of older adults this study has implications for promoting a positive and healthy attitude towards older adults. Older adults themselves can get an insight into their own twilight years and it could also help family and caregivers understand and modify their attitude towards older adults; from considering them as a burden to seeing ageing as another phase of life and appreciating the resources that older adults have to offer.
It will be useful in sensitising the family and caregivers as they plan strategies integrated into caregiving, at home and in institutions; to improve the quality of the lives of older adults and in enhancing a smooth transition as they move into their twilight years
This study has given older adults a chance to communicate their feelings about ageing. Their real-life accounts or narratives can support the field and promote further research in the area of gerontology. It can also help policy makers plan adequate and effective old age benefits for older individuals.
Directions for Future Research
This study aimed at understanding the experiences of older adults which have contributed to optimism and resilience and the conditions that facilitated optimism and resilience in their lives. There are other areas that could be researched and that could benefit older adults.
A large fraction of older adults are living either in a home for the elderly or alone at home without the support of immediate family. It would be interesting to explore the life experiences and the coping styles of these older adults. Research could also explore if living with family has more meaning for older adults than when living in community.
A multigenerational study with similar objectives could also be conducted, so as to understand the experiences and viewpoints of not just the older adults, but also their children along with their spouses and grandchildren.
When making plans for older adults in the present or in the future, the question that arises is, will they be cared for by their families or move to assisted care centres; and will the family or the government take responsibility to support them (Ramamurthi, Liebig and Duvvuru, 2015). We will need to work on what is our approach to care for them. While providing them with basic care facilities, we can also consider helping them have a more positive experience as they age.
Lastly, studies on older adults from different socio-economic groups in India could give valuable insights on their experiences; this information could be useful to bring about policies and schemes that could benefit older adults.
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