Why Self Image Suffers Among Seniors

Study Examined Self-Esteem in Different Generations

"One of the strengths of our study is that it includes individuals from many different generations (i.e., people born as early as the turn of the century to people born in the early sixties)," Robins said in his e-mail. "We were able to test whether different generations of people have different self-esteem trajectories. We found no differences in the trajectory across generations. So, thus far, baby boomers are following the same trajectory as earlier generations.

"Given this consistency across generations, we do not expect to find that baby boomers show a different trajectory as more of them enter old age. However, with medical advances, people are healthier for longer and are able to work longer and maintain their incomes longer, thus, it is possible that the decline in self-esteem might occur later in life for baby boomers."

As with any study that puts all humans in the same category, all of us can think of some older people who have lost some self-esteem for reasons other than poor health and too little wealth. The death of friends, a sense of helplessness in the face of difficult challenges, and simply being left behind by rapidly-changing technologies that many seniors find intimidating all probably play some role.

Health, Income Key Factors Contributing to Self Esteem

But according to the study, none of those factors rank even close to poor health and declining income in old age.

"In contrast, midlife is a time of highly stable work, family and romantic relationships, characterized by peaks in achievement, mastery, and control over self and environment," the study says.

If we are lucky, for a while it seems we are in control of our own destiny, the masters of our domains, no matter how large or small.

But there comes a time when the knees start to creak, the bank account may diminish, and it may seem that no one is particularly interested in the views of an old person. A few years ago I got into an argument with my father-in-law, a strong man who had carved out a legacy in the backwoods of Alaska.

Why, I asked him, did he refuse to learn how to use an ATM machine? It's so simple, I said, and so convenient. But life was coming at him pretty fast, and his alert mind found much of it confusing and unsettling.

"When you get old," he finally answered, "you feel very vulnerable."

But he was still in good health, and he had planned well for his retirement. Now almost 90 years old, he still feels pretty good about himself.

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