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Did you know that many of the oldest-old succeed in staying engaged, but not all kinds of engagement promote well-being equally?

January 2020

Studies on quality of life in the very old have shown psychological resilience to adverse trajectories in health, function and participation. Thus, good quality of life may exist even in those that fail to meet standards of successful living (i.e. absence of disease, good functioning, engagement with life). Moreover, quality of life in the oldest old has been described as geared towards idiosyncratic and existential aspects of life (e.g. life review, meaning). Thus, there may be a discrepancy with respect to prevalence and impact on subjective well-being between types of engagement sought by the individual (e.g. interpersonal) and appreciated by society (e.g. productive). Reliable data on these facets of quality of life in the general population of the very old, including those in institutional settings, remain sparse.

To answer these questions, ISS researcher Michael Wagner, together with Christiane Woopen (Medical faculty, ceres), Susanne Zank and Christian Rietz (Humanities faculty), initiated a large-scale representative survey of the very old in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW80+). During the first wave of data collection in 2017, a total of 1,863 interviews have been realized to assess quality of life resources and outcomes in the very old.

They found that only few respondents fulfilled all standard criteria of successful aging (80-84 years: 15%, 85-89 years: 8%, 90+ years: 2%) while subjective well-being was high in most individuals. Nevertheless, the vast majority of even the oldest old reported staying engaged with life either interpersonally or productively. Productive engagement was found to be more closely linked to perceived appreciation by others while interpersonal engagement was a stronger predictor of subjective appreciation of life in very old individuals. In consequence, a focus on productive engagement as a marker of successful life conduct may increase opportunities for the oldest old, but may at the same time not be the most effective catalyst for subjective quality of life in very old age.