Communication Currents

Don’t Talk Yourself into an Early Grave! The Role of Communication in Aging Well

December 1, 2015
Health Communication

Growing older is something all of us go through—some with more enthusiasm than others! While we cannot avoid aging, we do have control over how we experience it, and this starts with the way we talk about it. Our research focuses on how we can proactively manage our futures through communication. In other words, how we can talk ourselves into (or out of) social worlds that promote successful aging.

In the communicative ecology model of successful aging (CEMSA), we outline how people’s own communication about age and aging—and to a degree, how they respond to others’ communication—has the potential to affect their attitudes toward aging, as well as their experiences of successful aging. We start from the premise that aging involves considerable uncertainty. We cannot predict the future, so when we reflect on our own aging, we often ponder questions such as, Will I be in good health? Will I have enough money? Will I enjoy retirement or be bored by it?  

We propose that the uncertainty we have about aging leads us to experience particular emotions (such as anxiety or optimism) and—critically—to communicate and interact with others in particular ways. Our main belief is that our communication contributes to the construction of social environments, or “aging spaces,” within which we have greater (or reduced) potential to age well. Ultimately, our uncertainty, emotions, and communication about aging all contribute to whether or not we feel able to manage getting older. And—taking a life lesson from The Little Engine That Couldthinkingwe can age well is an important step toward actually aging well.

In our tests of this model, we focus on seven specific forms of communication that could contribute to aging well. First, and perhaps most crucially, we argue that it is important to express optimism about getting older. Some fascinating psychological studies have shown that people who have more positive views about aging also have a stronger will to live (and live longer). Likewise, it is important to avoid expressing negativity, for example, by making remarks that attribute our own problems to agedness, or teasing or making fun of others about their age. Making such comments might seem like a good-humored way of dealing with getting older, yet when we reference age in such ways, we can actually increase how old we feel and encourage others to see and treat us as elderly. Further, making these kinds of comments reinforces negative ideas about aging in our own (and others’) minds. When a colleague turns 60, sending her a birthday card that jokes about her best years being behind her not only entrenches negative ideas about aging in her mind, but also allows them to take root in our own, potentially making each of us more fatalistic about what our futures might hold.

Other forms of communication can contribute to successful aging in more concrete ways. Talking and planning with family to address future care needs can help reduce anxiety and depression, and increase the degree to which people feel able to cope with growing older. Usingtechnology to foster communication with friends and loved ones can also help people stay in touch with others, which keeps them socially involved and connected to sources of social support. Research increasingly demonstrates that using online communication media (e.g., Skype, social media, email) is linked to older adults experiencing less depression and lower levels of loneliness.

Finally, in addition to creating social situations that promote aging well, communication also allows people to effectively manage being the recipient of ageism, and thus modify the social environment within which they are aging. Examples of this include challenging negative ideas about aging and distancing oneself from negative stereotypes. We also recognize that ageist messages do not just come from other people, but also from the media, where commercials present aging as a “problem” to be “solved” (or at minimum, feel insecure about). Given how ubiquitous these messages can be, we suggest that learning to recognize and challenge anti-aging media messages can contribute to successful aging.

To test our ideas and better understand how each of these forms of communication could ultimately contribute to successful aging, we conducted an online survey that asked people to report how they felt about their experiences of aging so far, and how much they engaged in the seven forms of communication about age and aging. Approximately 450 middle-aged (40-55 years) and older (65+ years) New Zealanders, who belonged to a national panel maintained by a research organization, participated in the survey.

Consistent with our model, we found that the more uncertain about aging people felt, the less positive and more negative their emotional reactions to aging. When people felt more uncertain about aging and had more negative emotional reactions, they also felt less able to cope with the process of getting older. However, feeling positive had the opposite effect; that is, as people experienced more positive emotional reactions to aging, they felt more able to handle getting older. As expected, feeling able to handle getting older was strongly related to people’s reporting they were, indeed, aging successfully.

Of the forms of communication we examined, three had the strongest effects on how well people felt they were aging. The more people reported expressing optimism about aging, planning for future care needs, and using communication technologies, the more they reported aging successfully. Findings from some of our subsequent work suggest the relationships between successful aging and some forms of communication, such as age attributions and age-related teasing, may be more complex than we initially thought, but affirm that these forms of communication help distinguish people who experience aging (more versus less) positively.

Based on this study, we propose some tentative, practical prescriptions for aging well. Namely:

  • Be cheerful when talking about aging and verbalize the joys associated with growing older. It will help remind yourself and others of all that is good about aging.
  • Take advantage of the possibilities for social contact afforded by emerging communication technologies. Stay in touch—and engaged—with family and friends near and far.
  • Take and make opportunities to discuss possible future care needs with loved ones. You and those you care about will feel better about the road ahead.

Aging well isn’t just something to which only those with particularly good genes or good fortune should aspire. Allof us have the potential to age well, but to do so we need to think about “aging with agency,” shaping our futures through what we do and say today. Being mindful of our communication about age and aging—both in what we say and how we respond to messages from others—is an important component of promoting, and ultimately experiencing, successful aging. 

About the author (s)

Craig Fowler

Massey University

Senior Lecturer

Howard Giles

University of California, Santa Barbara


Jessica Gasiorek

University of Hawaii at Mänoa

Assistant Professor