We may commonly hear statements like, “Jiichan has his way and won’t change the way things are” or “Older adults are stubborn.” But how true are these statements? Keiro asked Kimberly Hiroto, Ph.D., a geropsychologist with 14 years of experience, about how older adults can embrace change.

Holding Onto What’s Under My Control

Kimberly acknowledged that while the above statements may be common, older adults may exhibit such behaviors because they want to maintain as much autonomy and independence as possible. “There are a lot of things [in the aging process] where changes happen that are beyond their control.”

man resisting change

Whether it be new diets, taking certain medications, or giving up driving, the key common factor that Kimberly stressed was the intrusiveness of change on the person’s life. “There’s rarely a sense of agency or choice in the matter. Change is often imposed upon the person without their permission, especially the bigger changes, such as limiting or losing driving privileges.” Because many factors are beyond their control, older adults tend to hold on tighter to things that are within their control and that they value. And these changes often come with little time to process as well.

Many times, however, the individual may be willing to change if there is motivation or incentive to do so, such as wanting to be healthier or lose weight. But as people age, the incentive to change can grow slim. “Change involves risk. It often involves giving something up in lieu of something new or different. This can be scary or daunting and can also elicit sadness or grief around losing something familiar,” says Kimberly. Inevitable changes are one of the toughest to accept and adapt to, especially with increasing age.

The Toughest Changes

Kimberly shared the three areas where there’s often most resistance to change:

  1. Change in family dynamics – Also known as inversion of hierarchy, this is where the relationship between the parent and adult child switches, and the adult child takes on a more “parental” role. Kimberly stressed that this shift “often happens without either person’s permission, and it typically happens over time. But it also can occur suddenly”. Common examples include adult children asking for the parent’s whereabouts or if they took their medication. When the roles switch, it may feel invasive from the parent perspective since they may feel like their independence is being compromised.
    This transition may be even harder if families don’t acknowledge or talk about this change and its effects on their relationship or if the family does not have an established trusting relationship.
  2. Change in social value within society – While the Japanese American community places more emphasis on honoring older adults, many mainstream society narratives portray aging negatively (e.g., “anti-aging” products) with a cultural value on youth. Such messages are often internalized by older adults, leading to ageist beliefs including a reduced sense of social value.
  3. Functional change (cognitive and physical) – “This may be one of the hardest changes that older adults experience, understandably. The misalignment between one’s mind and one’s body can be incredibly tough,” explained Kimberly. These changes are often outside our control and can happen with little warning, whether it be our bodies being unable to listen to us or wanting to do something that our minds cannot.

Changes that are Embraced

On the flip side, she also shared three areas where older adults may welcome change:

  1. Change in families – The addition of new family members, especially through marriage and birth, are often sources of celebration, adjustment, and positive change.
  2. Change in perspective – Kimberly shared that research suggests that as adults grow older, they display fewer extremes of emotion, compared to teenagers and young adults, for example. With longer and varied life experience, older adults can often differentiate between a true crisis and something that can be adequately managed.
  3. Change in what’s important – Youth is often a time for exploration of different activities, connections, and relationships. As adults age, however, they often focus on what truly matters to them in life: the people and experiences that support their emotional and social well-being. With more life experiences under their belt, priorities and values often become clearer as do their own sense of identity.

Tips for Embracing Change

Some changes in the aging process are inevitable. Changes and losses in life can be relatively minor or massively life-altering. While every situation and individual are different, Kimberly provided some advice on how changes can be embraced and transitions made easier.

But I Don’t Talk to my Family…

While Kimberly mentioned communicating as the first piece of advice to embrace change, the reality is that many of our community members may not be as open to doing this. She acknowledged this, sharing, “There are some cultural values, like gambatte, that served its function to help individuals and communities survive in times of crisis, such as the WWII incarceration camps and post-war life. Avoiding discussion of painful experiences helped people cope through hardship. It aided in people’s survival, but may not be as helpful now.”

In such cases, she suggested that understanding their loved one’s ways of communicating can help. “Look for signs that they’re struggling.” Due to generational values, gender roles, etc., some individuals did not have opportunities to learn how to fully express a range of emotions. Adding the influence of advance age could make emotions even harder to understand and describe. Trusted family members may share their observations and concerns to start the conversation. It often helps to ask permission to share this information so the older adult does not feel caught off guard. Such conversations can help validate the natural emotional reaction to the changes they’re going through.

mother and daughter discussing

If a serious conversation is too daunting, Kimberly suggested doing an activity together such as cooking or games to casually discuss changes experienced. This can often feel more natural and less anxiety-provoking than having a formal meeting.

Many older adults also may not ask for help in an effort to preserve their sense of autonomy and/or to avoid acknowledging limitations or functional change. Kimberly stressed, “Anticipating one’s needs without emphasizing their limitations may help preserve the individual’s dignity and position as head of the family. Recognizing needs and meeting those needs is another way to acknowledge change without having to openly admit to functional changes.” This may take some trial and error to figure out these needs and what works best.

At the end of the day, knowing and respecting each other can help facilitate some of the more difficult conversations around changes that come with aging. By being aware of the magnitude of change experienced, holding compassion for those going through these changes, and acknowledging the effect on their life, we can foster healthy transitions and perhaps even deepen our relationships.

Thank you to Dr. Kimberly Hiroto for providing information and insight for this article.

Baltes P. , & Baltes M. (1990). Psychological perspectives on successful aging: The model of selective optimization with compensation. In P. Baltes & M. Baltes (Eds.), Successful aging: Perspectives from the behavioral sciences (pp. 1–34). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511665684.003