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Featured Researcher: Linda K. George, PhD

linda-georgeThe Duke University Center for the Study of Aging (henceforth, the Center) has been my home throughout my professional career.  I entered the Center as a graduate student in sociology, completed a postdoctoral fellowship there, and have been active in the Center since then.   The overarching theme of my research has always been the well-being of older adults – both as individuals and as a subgroup of the total population. Within this theme, my work has focused on multiple dimensions of well-being, including life satisfaction, depressive disorders and symptoms, the health and mental health consequences of caring for an impaired older adult, the links between religion and health, and the effects of medical technology on reducing mobility limitations in later life.

One of the greatest rewards of my career has been discovering that regardless of what aging “problem” I study, whether it is the burdens of geriatric depression or recovery from joint replacement, the majority of older adults exhibit impressive resilience and remain meaningfully involved in their personal and social lives.  Bette Davis is credited with stating that “Old age isn’t for sissies” – a sentiment with which I concur.  The good news is that most older adults are anything but sissies.  They generally find their lives satisfying and meaningful despite experiencing age-related losses or declines.

Studying patterns of satisfaction with life among young, middle-aged, and older adults reveals some interesting paradoxes.  For example, if one divides the adult population into the three broad categories of young, middle-aged, and older and examines how these age groups rate their life satisfaction, we find that the oldest group is the most satisfied with their lives and the youngest group is the least satisfied with their lives.  When this pattern was first identified in the 1970s, there was considerable surprise.  Most scholars were worried that because of age-related declines, older adults would be less satisfied with their lives than their younger counterparts.  But it also appears that most older adults do not recognize their advantage.  When American adults are asked to identify the best and worst stages of life, a majority of adults of all ages report that later life is the “worst” time of life.  The percentage of persons stating that late life is the low point of the life course is smaller among older adults than among young and middle-aged adults, but a majority of our older citizens do.  I’ve been studying age differences in life satisfaction for 40 years now – and these patterns have been stable as new generations enter and leave adulthood.  It still amazes me that a majority of the most satisfied age group reports that they are living in the worst years of their lives.

Another joy of engaging in research is that the results are so frequently at odds with what we generally call “common sense” or “common knowledge.”  In addition to the myth that later life is the worst time of life, I’ve had the privilege of contributing to the destruction of other common myths as well, including the myth that older adults receive less care and support from their families than was true in the past and the myth that older workers are less productive than younger workers. Without question most research on aging aims to improve the lives of older adults through preventing and, if that fails, successfully treating chronic illness, ensuring financial security and health care for older adults, and maintaining cognitive skills throughout life.  And that’s the way it should be.  But it’s also valuable that along the way, that research also uncovers the strengths and resourcefulness of late life.