Aptitude For Aging

“As individuals age, they become increasingly like themselves.”

“As individuals age, they become increasingly like themselves.”
Bernice Neugarten,
1964 (founder of the field of personality and aging)

By Lee Anna Sherman

In 2006, the first wave of baby boomers turned 60. Even for the bold cultural warriors of the 1960s — the rockers, idealists, protesters and iconoclasts who transformed the nation — the transition to retirement is likely to be tough, according to OSU researcher Karen Hooker. Whether they thrive or struggle as they redefine their roles and restructure their time, she says, will depend largely on their personality.

The role of personality in life’s trajectory has intrigued Hooker ever since her undergraduate days at Denison University in Ohio. Why, she wondered, do some people move through adulthood with relative ease, rolling with the punches, keeping a sense of purpose and hope, while others succumb to depression, addiction or hopelessness? Then, as a graduate student in developmental psychology at the College of William and Mary, the nascent field of aging captured her.

“The whole notion that development doesn’t stop when you hit 21 was really just emerging,” says the professor of Human Development and Family Sciences, reminiscing in her Milam Hall office. “It wasn’t on the general public’s radar screen, in spite of the demographics of a growing aging population. I thought, ‘Wow! This is really untapped.’”

That was the late 1970s, a time when old people were getting a bum rap in popular culture. “Everywhere you looked, there was a lot of ageism,” she recalls. “If you watched TV, you didn’t see very many models of old people, and the ones you did see were extremely negative.”

The stereotypes of crotchety, decrepit, frumpy or demented elders didn’t jibe with Hooker’s own experience. Her grandmother and great-grandfather both maintained optimism, good humor, curiosity, energy and intellect throughout their lives. She remembers watching her great-grandfather working on his Pennsylvania farm and her grandmother playing bridge with friends, well into their ‘90s. “They were vibrant and interesting and resilient,” she says. “They were living history.”

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So the scholar-athlete from the Midwest (who once dreamed of becoming a gym teacher) went on to earn her Ph.D. at Penn State, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Duke University’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development. Over the next quarter-century — with funding from agencies such as the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute on Mental Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — she has delved deeply into the mysteries of personality and aging. The issues she explores with surveys, interviews, statistical analyses, and theoretical models are some of the most wrenching and life-altering in human experience — bereavement, institutionalization for dementia, mental health of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease caregivers, memory loss, becoming a parent, retiring from the workforce. “The thread underlying all my work is transitions — those times during the course of life when personality may act as a compass for navigating new circumstances,” she says.

Ironically, her decades absorbed in aging have barely registered on Hooker’s face. The lithe 50-year-old can be seen most evenings swimming laps in the campus pool or running the hills of Corvallis — the very kinds of lifestyle choices whose benefits are well-documented in the literature. Researchers know with certainty that working out, eating and drinking in moderation, and eschewing tobacco and other risky behaviors support healthy aging. They are clear about the effects of education, affluence, and ethnicity. They know, too, that engagement with life and strong social support networks are vital. Less understood, however, is how our personalities interact with these myriad factors to influence our mental and physical health over the years.

To broaden and deepen the concept of personality, Hooker has developed a theoretical model called “the six foci of personality” with Dan McAdams of Northwestern University. Published in the prestigious Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences in 2003, the model has been adopted by universities across the U.S. as a powerful tool to guide future studies in personality and aging. That’s because it weaves the various strands of personality into a whole fabric, including the life stories we construct and the narratives we tell. This new unity of personality as a multidimensional concept opens the way to more comprehensive explorations of the aging self.

“The framework lets researchers better address the full richness of personality,” Hooker says. “It helps to solidify the science of personality in adulthood through a common language that had previously been elusive.”

Hooker’s current investigations into our “possible selves” are also yielding tantalizing clues. Self-concepts about the ideal we hope to be or the person we fear to become play critical roles as internal motivators, she explains, acting as psychological carrots and sticks in decision-making. By the time we reach old age, she has found, most of us have at least one health-related possible self. If you carry around a mental image of yourself as, for example, a 75-year-old equestrian cantering across the landscape, or an 80-year-old bicyclist pedaling Cycle Oregon, you’re better able to cope with — and fend off — that scary possible self, the bedridden nursing-home resident, Hooker says.

“Personality is the driving force behind successful aging,” she asserts. “What type of person you are, how reliably you can be counted on, your approach to people — all are crucial for understanding social support, coping strategies, stress and other health-related behaviors.”

When she uses the term “personality,” Hooker isn’t talking only about the traits we characterize with adjectives such as bubbly, aloof, shy or gregarious. Those outward qualities are just one side of personality. The other side is about actions — setting and achieving goals, for instance. Hooker’s ongoing research and scholarship in developmental psychology is revealing how those two aspects of personality — traits (“structures”) and states (“processes”) — affect social and emotional adjustment in later life. Although traits are more-or-less fixed, states are dynamic. In other words, they can change. That means that useful skills for coping with retirement — such as how to structure leisure time to make it both meaningful and manageable — are teachable and learnable.

“People tend to think of personality as immutable, carved in stone,” she says. “But we are finding that in fact, it’s a domain where there’s potential for growth, even in the very last days of life. You can always grow in some aspect of yourself.”