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What is social aging? 4 defense mechanisms used by the elderly

What is social aging? 4 defense mechanisms used by the elderly

June 24, 2021

Since the middle of the last century, the interest of psychology to anticipate social problems has put in focus the development of the elderly and their participation in daily life.

According to sociological studies, our environment is aging by leaps and bounds. The number of elderly people is greater than ever and it is estimated that by 2025 there will be around 1,100 million people over 80 years of age. If the prospects carried out by the United Nations are true, 13.7% of the population would be between 60 and 80 years old.

The study of aging from social psychology encompasses the processes and psychological mechanisms associated with this stage and how they are culturally and socially influenced. Considers aging as a period in which people achieve certain achievements and grow at a psychosocial level and argues that no life period should be defined by "the loss", although in all of them there is some.


  • Recommended article: "The 4 psychological changes in old age"

Old age, stability or change?

As we get older, we face multiple novel situations to which we end up adapting. These situations make us aware of the passage of time and give us the opportunity to incorporate changes into our lives without losing the feeling of stability. Proof of this is that, according to numerous studies, we maintain a great stability in our self-consciousness throughout our lives .

Although most changes are incorporated into our self-awareness without losing the sense of continuity, some situations provoke an experience of rupture and mark the passage to a new stage.


The most relevant reminders are the corporal ones (pains and illnesses during old age), the symbolic ones (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.), the generational ones (related to family and friends), the environmental ones (related to public life and work) and the vital ones (personal experiences). One of the most relevant reminders is retirement, which, on the one hand, represents the opportunity to be autonomous and independent, but on the other hand it imposes a break with roles and habits that have been maintained for years, signaling the end of the middle-aged stage and the beginning of old age.

Edadeism or discrimination towards the elderly

People tend to develop stereotypical beliefs about the age of people, which includes personality, social roles or behaviors "own" of each life stage. These beliefs are learned at a very early age and passively and actively transmitted, for example, associating gray hair with old age or calling "certain" certain clothes or behaviors in older people.


According to a study conducted by Cuddy, Norton and Fiske, people over 70 are perceived as more incompetent, dependent, kind, calm and patient , as well as with lower mental and physical well-being. These stereotypes, regardless of their connotation, encourage a simplified and erroneous vision of old age, but social psychology has found two interventions that can reduce them. First, promote contact between different generations in order to promote mutual knowledge and interdependence. Second, educate in values ​​and promote respectful treatment towards people of different ages.

How to combat the harmful effects of social aging

Often, people who see their damaged social self-esteem implement strategies that, unconsciously, can help develop a positive social identity and improve subjective well-being . These strategies are applicable to elderly people who are victims of the stereotypes related to old age.

1. Postpone social self-categorization

This strategy, common in middle-aged people and in the early stages of advanced age, is to postpone self-categorization as a member of the older age group , that is, by moving the cut point from which old age begins as you age.

2. Relative illusory optimism

This strategy, also known as self-sensing self, represents a way to react to the threat to self-esteem caused by belonging to the group of elderly people . It consists in perceiving oneself more favorably than other people of the same age, whether at a physical, social or psychological level.

It was studied by Heckhausen and Krueger. In their research, the people in the group over 60 were the only ones who responded differently to themselves and to the rest of the members of their age group. Some of the differences they pointed out were that they would lose their positive attributes more slowly than the rest and that they would take longer to suffer the negative effects of old age.

3.Absolute illusory optimism

When we find ourselves in a situation of uncertainty, we usually exaggerate our expectations of control and we develop an optimistic vision of the future. This strategy is frequent when, in addition to uncertainty, there is a feeling of vulnerability, such as in people with health problems.

The difference between relative and absolute illusory optimism is that in the latter, the positive image of oneself is built without need of comparison with others . Both types of optimism decrease the levels of stress and anguish, and their absence is related to depressive and anxiety symptoms.

4. Asymmetrical social comparisons

They can be "down" when compared to other people of the same age but in worse conditions, or "up" when compared to people in better conditions. In the first case, they allow to regulate the negative feelings that provoke the deterioration of old age and improve self-esteem. They are common when it comes to irreversible difficulties or losses , such as physical aging or the loss of a loved one.

On the other hand, upward comparisons provide hope and motivation to face a situation that causes discomfort but has a remedy, as they provide information on how other people solved a problem.

Other specific strategies for the elderly are socio-emotional selection (choosing emotionally satisfying life experiences), compensation mechanisms (using alternative resources that compensate for health losses, such as a companion or instrumental support) and underestimation of health ( minimize the importance of the symptoms, considering them normal for the age one has).


8 Stages of Development by Erik Erikson (June 2021).


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