Older adults perceive emotional terms differently and respond to them more positively and actively than younger persons, according to a new study that may help caregivers improve treatment and interactions with elderly people.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts recruited 32 older adults aged 60 to 92, and 111 younger adults aged 18 to 32, and asked them to judge 70 emotional terms on whether the words had a positive or negative connotation and if the words were activating or arousing.
“Older adults report feeling more serenity than younger persons. They also have a richer concept of what it means to feel serene than younger persons,” said Rebecca Ready from University of Massachusetts.
“We were surprised to find that younger adults associated more self-deprecating terms with feeling sad and lonely, such as being ashamed or disgusted with themselves, than older persons,” Ready said.
Researchers found the word groupings were similar between older and younger persons for many words but they noted systematic differences for sadness, loneliness and serenity.
They also found that older adults perceive emotional terms as most positive and more active than younger persons. Emotions overall may be more stimulating for older than younger persons.
For example, excited is generally rated as a high activation word, while serene is associated with less activation. They then had participants group similar words together.
The older adults in the study reported fewer depressive symptoms than the younger participants, researchers said.
In a word grouping task, older adults associated more positive emotional terms with serene, such as cheerful, happy and joyful, than did younger people.
Researchers speculate that “this broader conception of serene” is associated with the fact that older adults report more calming positive emotions than younger people.
“We gained a deeper appreciation of some relatively unknown benefits of ageing, such as increased positive emotions and less shame associated with feeling sad or lonely,” Ready said.
“It is imperative to determine how older adults define emotions differently than younger adults. These data ensure effective communication with older adults, accurate understanding of their emotion experiences, and appropriate access to psychological interventions,” Ready said.
The findings are “highly clinically significant” because the information could help caregivers, psychotherapists and workers at assisted living facilities, for example, better understand the emotions of older people in their care, which could lead to improved treatment and quality of interactions, researchers said.
The findings were published in the journal Ageing and Mental Health.