Aging and Adaptation

If there is one word that captures the key to successful development across all species, it is probably “adaptation.”

Life has constantly been changing from day one. Weather changes, environments change, people change, and circumstances change. Adaptability is crucial if a person is to move forward successfully.

It makes sense that a good prognosis for successful adaptation in later life is a prior history of flexibility and effective adjustment. Most people will face challenges as they age, so the ability to change direction when necessary is crucial for successful living.

So, what are some problems many will face in their senior years? Certainly, health issues must rank high on the list. Health problems are not only intrinsically difficult, but they have ramifications in many other areas. Hearing loss affects social life and can push a person toward social isolation. Joint replacements and arthritis can end an active lifestyle. What does one do, then?

When one loses a spouse, what happens then? Most likely, a new lifestyle will have to emerge over time. That task is not so easy! Dementia trumps all and, over time, requires a family to make numerous changes to accommodate an individual whose functioning deteriorates in multiple areas. Other illnesses like cancer can have a devastating effect on a family and curtail former ways of functioning.

Aging also means changes in environment for many. “Downsizing” is a word that has crept into most people’s lexicon. We leave our family homes for facilities run by other people. Such changes to assisted living and nursing homes call for flexibility and adjustment. Adults, rather than being caretakers, become those who receive care.

The psychological tasks of maneuvering through life are daunting for many. Change is hard, and what are some of the attributes that allow people to face new situations successfully?

  1. flexibility
  2. good self-esteem
  3. the ability to anticipate
  4. good judgment
  5. a sense of adventure
  6. good interpersonal skills
  7. a coherent worldview
  8. an integrated picture of one’s lifespan

Some years ago, a Boston psychiatrist, George Valliant, began a longitudinal study of college sophomores. He and his team traced the lives of these men well into adulthood, and the social scientists were able to isolate the variables that differentiated adaptive men from those who were less so. 

Valliant focused on adaptation as a critical variable to an effective life instead of variables like “happiness” or “satisfaction.” Valliant found common traits between adaptive men and less effective men. 

Less adaptive men tended to put their feelings into action when frustrated. They showed less emotional control and modulation. Think about road rage. It feels good to let feelings out, but it can be dangerous.

Less adaptive men in his study also manipulated reality to suit their needs. They used denial. If they didn’t want to see something, it didn’t exist. Children use this defense, but it doesn’t usually work out for adults. 

People with adaptive strategies tended to control their feelings better and used their minds to make decisions. Rational thought was their guide as opposed to raw emotions. In Freudian terms, their egos were in charge. Adaptive men also suppressed feelings when it was in their best interest. It was frustrating to them, but it was better than being fired, kicked off a team, or losing a friend. 

Valliant found that the most adaptive men used humor and anticipation to cope. Planning and thinking ahead were essential in their ability to manage different situations successfully. Think about the woman on the airplane who brings snacks and games for her young children.

Valliant’s work had flaws. He only studied men from an elite Eastern University, among other issues. However, his findings mesh with conventional wisdom and common sense, providing a broad framework for thinking about the evolution of personality.

George Valliant’s book is Adaptation to Life, and it is worth reading.