Life stories as well as theories needed to understand aging

Karen Hooker

As individuals age they become increasingly like themselves. . . the personality structure stands more clearly revealed in an old than in a young person.

This 1977 quote from University of Chicago gerontologist Bernice Neugarten touches on a key point of Karen Hooker's study on the self and aging: that the "self" does change with the years is unquestioned, but how the changes are viewed differs dramatically according to the approach.

"One of the beauties of studying later life is that there is so much material, that is, so many different stories in one life," said Hooker, a Center Research Fellow and assistant professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at OSU. "But there is currently a 'disconnect' in the study of aging between perspectives in the humanities disciplines and those in the developmental sciences."

Hooker's interest in aging stems from a fascination with developmental psychology, specifically how individuals change over time. Raised with active, powerful older people as models, she said, she was surprised to discover that this society in general has a negative view of what it means to grow old.

"We live in a highly 'ageist' society, although it's easier to find positive images of aging now than when I started several years ago." While this can be attributed, in part, to the aging of the Baby Boom generation, it also is a result of medical advances that keep us healthier longer. A healthier old age also has made the study of aging more interesting because it reduces the role that physical deterioration plays in the changes, leaving more clearly revealed the effects of maturing personality and life experiences.

Karen Hooker "In almost any variable we can measure, there is more differentiation among older than younger people, which makes studying self process more interesting among older adults. . . One reason for my interest in the domain of personality and self in later life is because these arenas are ones in which growth and development are possible even into advanced old age. I'm interested in how we define development in adulthood, and how we distinguish 'change' from 'development.'"

A number of key questions underlie the study of aging. How do we become what we are? How is "who we are" influenced by our goals? How are goal hierarchies generated, and how do they evolve and change over the course of a life? How is life lived differently in the face of limited time? How is meaning constructed, maintained and re-constructed in response to late life transitions such as retirement, widowhood and health deterioration? To what extent can we conceive of our "selves" as extending beyond our own physical bodies, i.e., what is left of us for following generations?

"Successful aging and development can be viewed as dynamic processes of adaptation between the self and the environment," said Hooker. Some important work on adult development suggests that self-directed choices and selection processes are key to understanding aging. "Although many goals of the individual are common among individuals because they are shaped by biological and social processes, some goals are idiosyncratic, or unique, for the individual."

A major challenge in developmental theory has been to distinguish change in general from development, with some theorists seeing potential for loss as well as gain in every developmental process, and others arguing that change must be adaptive to the individual to be considered a developmental change. While the humanities and developmental sciences have treated aging thoughtfully, said Hooker, approaches taken by the two disciplines differ significantly. Humanities scholarship takes an idiographic view that emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual, while developmental sciences usually take a nomothetic approach that is concerned with broad, preferably universal laws.

"It has been a long-standing challenge to bring the uniqueness of individuals into theories of development. A step toward a rapprochement between humanistic and scientific approaches may be a clearer understanding of idiographic and nomothetic distinctions and what each has to offer the study of aging lives."

Each person is born with certain traits that stay reasonably stable throughout life, but character also is deeply affected by "personal action constructs" that change with time, with the individual life story. "Now there's a greater recognition that behaviors are important. The psychological and social aspects of aging are gaining importance in relation to biomedical aspects, but there is no model integrating these things well. I argue that a theory of meaning, of understanding how people regulate their life activities to meet core values of the self, is crucial for understanding development late in life. I am also convinced that the only way one can study this is idiothetically - by understanding what is important to each individual and from there, building a scientific understanding of more general laws."