APA Book Notes
Geropsychologists are challenging popular theories that aging leads to inevitable decline, chronic illness and a loss of meaningful relationships. Instead, says a new book by aging experts, older adults can positively adapt to changes in their cognition, mental health and social relationships.
"Psychology and the Aging Revolution: How We Adapt to Longer Life," edited by Sara Honn Qualls, PhD, and Norman Abeles, PhD, provides a snapshot of how psychology's subdisciplines have examined aging's effect on cognition, emotion, mental health and social relationships.
In the 286-page book, experts in mainstream psychology and geropsychology discuss how memory, social relationships, emotion and depression apply to all aspects of seniors' lives. Mainstream psychologists discuss cutting-edge theories they believe can be generalized across populations, such as how memory changes in adulthood, how basic psychological needs are affected across the life span and how psychological risk factors for depression change over time. In response, geropsychologists address how these theories relate to older populations, often disproving common beliefs such as that older adults are more prone to depression and must resign themselves to declining mental functioning.
"Many readers will be surprised by how much research has been done on aging in each of these areas of psychology and the extent to which aging populations challenge certain theories," says Qualls, associate professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she also serves as director of the Center on Aging.
Qualls and Abeles based their book on the 1997 miniconvention on aging that was offered at APA's 1997 Annual Convention.
"The ultimate aim of the volume is to provoke discussion between mainstream psychology and geropsychology to shape future research," says Abeles, professor of psychology and director of the Psychological Clinic at Michigan State University.
Geropsychologists contributing to the book challenge many popular theories about aging, arguing that:
The aging process doesn't inevitability result in clinical depression. Depression in older adults is overestimated, says psychologist Margaret Gatz, PhD, a professor of psychology and senior research associate at the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. In fact, research shows that clinical depression is lowest among people ages 65 and older compared with other age groups. But, she cautions, late-onset depression appears to be different from depression earlier in life and is more likely to be associated with brain changes and a family history of dementia than a family history of depression.
Growing older doesn't necessarily lead to a cognitive slowdown. Although there's clear evidence that memory declines with age, psychologist Neil Charness, PhD, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who has studied how age and practice affect skilled performance, asserts that older adults can develop techniques to offset their waning memory and slowing motor functioning. For example, older typists can compensate for their slowing speed by reviewing the material before they begin typing.
A shrinking social circle doesn't have to cause loneliness. Life-span literature has documented that social networks often decrease in size and social contact becomes less frequent as people age. One way older adults deal with this change is by focusing more on the quality of relationships rather than the quantity, says psychologist Karen S. Rook, PhD, chair of the psychology and social behavior department at the University of California, Irvine. Older adults use a host of coping strategies after a spouse or close friend dies, such as increasing their contact with existing friends and family, seeking out new friends, changing their expectations for companionship or increasing their involvement with hobbies.
In addition to debunking myths and spurring new research questions, this volume offers clinicians new concepts to consider when working with older clients, such as discussing ways to compensate for memory loss and strategies for coping with social loss.
"This book is not intended to be an encyclopedia of what the field knows about aging from A to Z," says Qualls, "but a highlighter of areas where there can be cross-fertilization between mainstream research and aging-related research."