Understanding Older Adults’ Wellbeing from a Philosophical Perspective

Abstract

In spite of the large research interest in older adults’ wellbeing, a theory of older adult’s wellbeing as such is still lacking. I present the outline of such a theory, determining its scope and premises and suggesting avenues for its further development and related empirical research. I assume that wellbeing is a complex and dynamic phenomenon, depending on a subtle interplay between several different factors. Older adults tend to combine and value these factors differently from other age groups, and this should be reflected by a domain-specific wellbeing theory. I argue more specifically that dispositional properties are less important to older adults’ wellbeing; that vulnerability is a second-order disposition, and that this explains why it does not seem to impede wellbeing; that hedonic adaptation takes very different forms, not least in older adults, and that it should be assessed in a correspondingly differentiated manner; that cognition and cognitive impairment can play very different, both positive and negative, roles depending on the context; and that notions like flourishing need modification, and are actually modified in wellbeing assessments and self-assessments.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It should also be noted that personality development theories, notably that of Erikson (Erikson and Erikson 1998), but also those of Kegan (1982) and Waterman (e.g. Waterman and Archer 1990), have considered the particularities of old age, including particular challenges to or possibilities for living a satisfactory life, at considerable detail. They could be an important source of inspiration for a detailed future theory of older adults’ wellbeing. But they are not explicitly concerned with wellbeing, nor do they fit easily into the scheme of established positions in wellbeing research. However, it also true that “we don’t see many discussions of the human life cycle these days”, as Michael Slote has remarked (Slote 2016, p. 5); this supports my contention that older adults’ wellbeing as such is an under-theorized topic.

  2. 2.

    In line with standard usage in philosophy, I use the term “hedonism” to refer to this specific, strictly experience-based view of wellbeing (see e.g. Crisp 2017; compare also Haybron 2008, p. 34). This is to be contrasted with the more generic notion of “hedonic” theories commonly used in psychology, which covers both hedonist and life-satisfaction theories (inasmuch as these can both be said to be about “subjective” measures of wellbeing), and which is often contrasted with more objective, “eudaimonic” theories. “Eudaimonic” theories are of course “subjectivist” in that “eudaimonia” is usually assessed by self-reporting, just as in the case of e.g. life-satisfaction theories, and not by expert evaluations or “outward” criteria. But the ontological understanding of wellbeing implicit in such theories is objectivist in that it takes wellbeing to comprise more than mental states of the subject in question. Thanks to a reviewer for prompting me to clarify this. The delineation of hedonic and eudaimonic theories, and their relationship to the standard philosophical taxonomy (i.e. “the Big Three”, see e.g. Alexandrowa 2017), is a complex issue that deserves further attention, but lies outside the scope of the present article. Since I opt for a multifactor theory that can accommodate aspects of both “hedonic” and “eudaimonic” wellbeing, and since I am not committed to hedonism in the philosophical sense, the distinctions do not matter to my own purpose.

  3. 3.

    Notable exceptions are Slote (1983) and Velleman (1991).

  4. 4.

    Again, it is not that the theory is incompatible with, or unable to explain, the empirical findings. It is widely recognized that the surprisingly positive self-assessments of wellbeing made by older adults can be explained, at least in part, by adaption, which might consist in the use of a less demanding standard of judgment (expecting less of life). A flourishing theorist like Kraut might simply dismiss this as self-deception and so maintain his verdict. But see below for an alternative interpretation of the findings.

  5. 5.

    As suggested by a reviewer.

  6. 6.

    On the same grounds, it can be argued that theories of so-called”successful ageing” [like that of Rowe and Kahn (1998)] are not really theories of ageing (”growing old”), but rather of postponed or suppressed ageing.

  7. 7.

    The expression emotional “sensitivity” is ambiguous and the very notion of sensitivity is insufficiently discriminate. Hence this phenomenon is one the alleged “findings” that need further interpretation and clarification. See Sect. 6 below.

  8. 8.

    Though, as argued above, it is controversial whether dispositions should actually be included (and the same goes for attitudes). This, however, is a more specific question of exactly what kind of state of mind happiness is, that is, which kind of psychological properties are relevant to it.

  9. 9.

    This does not mean that only well-being carry normative weight. Happiness does so, too. Indeed, on a hedonistic view, happiness carries all the normative weight. But it is possible to agree about the psychological description and disagree about its normative significance—i.e. take happiness to be more or less important to wellbeing.

  10. 10.

    I thus concur completely with the statement of a reviewer that “wellbeing functions as a disposition”. And wellbeing—not the special, some would perhaps say idiosyncratic—notion of happiness (as just defined) is the primary object of concern here.

  11. 11.

    Thus, the notion of dispositions employed here does not prioritize experiences or affective states. In accordance with standard views in psychology—as well as in the philosophy of mind—dispositional (and psychological) states are taken to encompass a large range of phenomena, including character traits and behavioral dispositions. It should also be noted that although dispositions are not per se objects of consciousness—they can exist without being reflected in the subject’s “occurent” mental states, i.e. her actual experiences—this by no means implies that they cannot become objects of consciousness. When coming to learn about our personality traits, we gain reflective consciousness of our dispositional states. But the fact that we usually learn about them only gradually and incompletely also indicates that they are not necessarily present to consciousness (thank you to a reviewer for prompting me to clarify this). For an exploration of the idea that we may have some immediate conscious awareness of at least some psychological dispositions, see Klausen (2013).

  12. 12.

    Or, to be more precise, the partly cognitive states (more or less explicitly articulated “pro-attitudes”) usually associated with such wellbeing.

  13. 13.

    As reported by managers and staff at residential homes in the Municipality of Vejle at deliberative workshops in held in May 2018.

  14. 14.

    Both of which were raised by a very perceptive reviewer.

  15. 15.

    This does not mean, however, that results obtained by other, even quantitative, methods cannot be equally relevant, provided the results are interpreted and used with sufficient care.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Søren Engelsen, Jakob Emiliussen and Regina Christiansen for fruitful collaboration and valuable suggestions, and to Helle Brinch from the Municipality of Vejle and her staff for supporting our project and enabling us to do empirical studies of older adults in care facilities. Thanks also to two very perceptive and openminded reviewers, to Mustafa Cihan Camci and his colleagues and students at Akdeniz University and to the audience at the 8th International Social and Applied Gerontology Symposion in Antalya.

Funding

Work on this paper was supported by a generous grant by the VELUX Foundation (to the project Elderly Wellbeing and Alcohol)

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Correspondence to Søren Harnow Klausen.

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Klausen, S.H. Understanding Older Adults’ Wellbeing from a Philosophical Perspective. J Happiness Stud 21, 2629–2648 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00197-5

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Keywords

  • Older adults’ wellbeing
  • Philosophical theories of wellbeing
  • Mid-level theories of wellbeing
  • Gerontology
  • Adaptation
  • Cognition
  • Happiness/wellbeing