Mind over Matter: Self-Control Keeps Social Activity High in Older Adults with Functional Limitations

For many older adults, functional limitations such as limited mobility or even a moratorium of driving have been shown to lead to decreased social activity. However, not everyone reacts to decreased functional abilities in the same way. One important factor in how older adults react to limitations is their sense of self-control, or their perceived ability to produce desired outcomes. A recent study looked at whether this perceived self-control might be related to differences in social activity for adults with functional limitations.

The researchers looked at how social activity changed over time for four different groups of older adults: high functional limitations and high perceived self-control; high functional limitations and low perceived self-control; low functional limitations and low perceived self-control; and low functional limitations and high perceived self-control. When the researchers charted participants’ trajectories over 18 years, they found that while there were not very large differences between these groups at the start of the study, over time, those with functional limitations and low perceived self-control showed a drastic drop-off in their amount of social activity. Those with functional limitations but high perceived self-control showed little drop-off in social activity, and approximated the activity levels of those without any functional limitations.

The researchers also looked at how increases in functional limitations in the years after the outset of the study impacted social activity. Looking only at increases in limitations, they found lower levels of social activity, but when perceived self-control was taken into account this effect was no longer significant.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that perceived self-control has a protective effect on individuals with functional limitations, and that belief in one’s ability to produce desired outcomes can contribute to older adults with limitations staying engaged. Based on this, aging services providers should not only look to assist with and accommodate limitations, but also do this in a way that fosters older adults’ sense of perceived self-control.


Curtis RG, Windsor TD, and Luszcz MA. Perceived control moderates the effects of functional limitations on older adults’ social activity: findings from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Journals of Gerontology B Series: Psychological and Social Sciences (2017); 72(4): 571–581.

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