An article in a recent special Gerontologist issue on successful aging suggests that the impact of the residential environment and the subjective experience of older adults both need to be taken into account when we conceptualize what successful aging should look like. Studies from fields ranging from architecture to sociology have linked residential and care environments to psychological well-being, engagement with life, and independence. Moreover, many older adults with limited physical and cognitive functioning show satisfaction with their lives and show multiple signs of positive well-being, suggesting that greater attention should be paid to the subjective experience of aging. This article provides a model of successful aging that takes both of these important points into account and suggests ways in which dissatisfied residents can engage in a “positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation.”
The article highlights two aspects of residents’ subjective, emotional experience of their environment. First is residential comfort, which is their experience of a place of residence as pleasurable, hassle-free, and comfortable. The second is residential mastery, which refers to whether they feel competent and in control when occupying their place of residence. The article suggests that efforts to address the needs of dissatisfied residents must address both of these factors and the ways that residents react to feeling low residential comfort and/or low residential mastery. The article points to two ways that residents can react to low comfort and/or mastery. One is an active response, in which residents assimilate and adapt by taking steps to eliminate or change the features. Such a response is considered a way of successfully aging. The other is a passive response by which residents accommodate the change by lowering their expectations and aspirations, or by rationalizing that unsatisfying aspects of their residential situation are not important for their happiness. This approach is used more when older adults feel overwhelmed and feel that they cannot eliminate them.
An individual’s subjective appraisal of viable options for coping and adapting must be taken into account in order to encourage successful adaptive responses to dissatisfaction with a residential environment. Older adults can appraise the same environments quite differently, and in order to successfully cope with areas of dissatisfaction, residents must be aware of options that they perceive as achievable and likely to lead to successful outcomes. Thus, it becomes important for individuals and organizations serving the residential needs of older adults to not only provide options that can address residential dissatisfaction, but to take steps to ensure that these are seen by residents as viable and able to successfully address their concerns.
The article also notes that there are both individual and environmental factors that impact older adults’ ability to cope with residential dissatisfaction. On the individual side, an individual’s resilience can play a large role. A number of personal factors such as an individual’s personality, life history, and financial resources can impact how motivated and able to find creative and constructive adaptation strategies an individual will be. Physical and mental health status can also play a role. This article also emphasizes that here are numerous idiosyncratic ways in which older adults will cope with an unsatisfying environment, which suggests that a personalized approach may be more effective than one-size-fits-all solutions. Multiple fixes may need to be offered to provide the greatest overall satisfaction among residents.
On the environmental side, locations differ in the degree to which they have adapted their environments to the realities of their aging populations, and in the opportunities and resources they provide to address the dissatisfaction of residents. The article notes that individuals with low resilience are particularly impacted by an environment with fewer options available or where the available options are not perceived as effective, since those with lower coping skills are less likely to discern or embrace solutions on their own. Lastly, the article emphasizes that some of the dissatisfaction experienced by older adults reflects a sense of loss for features of their lives that cannot be re-attained.
Physical, economic, and geographical changes will all impact the opportunities available for an older adult to adapt to change. As a result, addressing resident dissatisfaction instead requires focusing on working to create a “new normal” that addresses an individual’s dissatisfaction, even while certain sources of past life satisfaction cannot be wholly recaptured.