Feeling Useful as a Human Being into Older Adulthood

We use many elements to help define ourselves—such as physical strength, a successful career, or a busy family. But what happens when these defining features of our self-identity begin to fade? How can older adults continue to feel “useful” when they no longer meet their own definitions of usefulness?

Researchers are just now beginning to explore questions surrounding self-perceived usefulness and its impact on how we age. Specifically, Chinese researchers recently examined how older adults in China view their level of “uselessness” in a longitudinal study that spanned from 2000 to 2012 and included five waves of data collection. The researchers hypothesized that the more useless an older adult felt, the less successful their aging process would be over time.

To this end, 29,954 observations from 19,070 older adults age 65 and better were used to broach the question, “With age, do you feel more useless?” Participants selected from a range of answers, from always to never. The researchers measured successful aging by independence in activities of daily living and in instrumental activities of daily living, unimpaired cognition, good life satisfaction, and good self-rated health.

Indeed, researchers did find an association with self-perceived uselessness and less successful aging over time. In comparison to individuals who had never self-reported that they considered themselves “useless”, the more self-perceived “useful” group was between 16 and 42 percent less likely to be ADL-or IADL-dependent and less likely  to self-report cognitive impairment, in addition to being more likely to report higher levels of life satisfaction.

In conclusion, research should continue to examine the construct of self-perceived utility from the vantage point of the older adults themselves in future research. Once researchers have a better grasp on the full gamut of identity structures that older adults use to self-identify, it may be possible to help them modify their definitions to include skills and abilities that have grown with age (e.g., emotional stability or wisdom, as opposed to abilities that have declined with age (e.g., heavy lifting).


Danan, G., Brown BL, and, Qiu L. Self-perceived uselessness is associated with lower likelihood of successful aging among older adults in China. BMC Geriatrics. (2016). DOI: 10.1186/s12877-016-0348-5.

Self-Fulfilling ProphecyHow Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years

Learn how older adults’ perceptions of aging—and their self-perceptions—can have serious effects on their health, behaviors, and even longevity.

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