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Interview: Is Personality the Key to Aging Well?


Dr. Karen Hooker

Dr. Karen Hooker

Karen Hooker has been intrigued by the role of personality in life’s trajectory since her undergraduate days. Her passion to understand its impact on the aging process has only deepened over the past three decades.

Dr. Hooker is an award-winning scholar, a professor of human development and family sciences, as well as the Jo Anne Leonard Endowed director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University.

AHB caught up with her in Corvallis, Oregon.

Ruth Dempsey: Your aging heroes include your grandmother and great grandfather. How did they inspire you?

Karen Hooker: They were strong individuals and were not frail or disabled. My great grandfather farmed well into his 90s. My grandmother – an absolutely beautiful woman at all ages of her life – played bridge and was active into her 90s. Both of them garnered a lot of respect and had power in my family.

Growing up, I never thought twice about how "old" these family members were. It was during my college years in the late 1970s that our culture and the media started paying attention to "aging" and portrayed older adults as a special group needing help and compassion. On the one hand, this was helpful in getting resources to those who did need services. On the other hand, it ignored the wide variation in how people age, and set the stage for some very insidious negative views of older adults that underlies the ageism in our culture to this day.

So, my grandmother and great grandfather were inspirational in that they caused me to challenge the "accepted view" of aging and to wonder why they seemed to have a vigorous old age when others were much more frail. Personally, of course, I also want to live my later years as they did – active and involved.

RD: Your work focuses on the importance of personality in optimal aging. How do you understand personality in this context? And what do you mean by optimal aging?

KH: Personality is a very broad construct that encompasses what a person is like, as well as processes that continually shape who and what we are. Most people know about trait aspects of personality, like the variation in how gregarious a person you are, or how stressed out you tend to get in pressure situations.

But personality is also much more than this. It includes our propensity to feel in control over certain situations and how likely it is that we will behave to enact our goals. It even includes our life story and how we remember and cognitively process events to tell our story.

I think personality is greatly overlooked in our models of optimal aging. One very influential model of optimal aging by Drs. Rowe and Kahn, which they termed "successful" aging, includes three components: preventing disability and disease, maintaining high cognitive and physical functioning, and engagement with life.

Personality is influential in all three of these spheres, particularly in the third sphere, engagement with life. What type of person you are, whether or not you can be counted on, and how you meet the goals you set are crucial for forming and maintaining relationships with others, as well as participating in productive activities – the keys to engagement with life.

RD: What about retirement? Does personality play a role in the transition?

KH: Yes, in several ways.

First, it likely influences the timing of retirement. We know that one’s financial health and social environment are crucial considerations in deciding when to retire. A person who is goal-oriented and takes the long view may be more likely to have financial resources to make retirement possible at a relatively young age.

Secondly, if one has satisfying social relations with others and leisure pursuits one wishes to pursue, this will also affect one’s retirement decisions.

Finally, the transition to retirement is becoming more "blurred" with increasing numbers of people working part-time instead of fully retiring and a significant number "retiring" from retirement as they head back into the workforce.

One example of how personality might influence the transition to retirement is contrasting the person who scores very high on the trait called "openness to experience," who might choose to move to another country in retirement. While a person low in openness would be more likely to stick with the tried and true.

I could speculate that this might even relate to cognitive health in later years, as research has shown that challenging the brain is important for keeping it healthy, and sticking to the tried and true might not be so great for maintaining mental sharpness as we age.

RD: You say goal setting is important for older adults. Why is this?

KH: Goal setting, whether we do it consciously or not, is important for adults of any age. It ties into what social scientists call "self-regulation," which refers to the ability of human beings to be self-directing – to align their goals, thoughts and actions.

My colleagues and I have studied how possible selves – images of self in the future – are related to activities to support these self-related goals.

By the time we reach old age, most of us have at least one health-related possible self. If you carry around a mental image of yourself as, for example, a 75-year-old equestrian cantering across the landscape, or an 80-year-old bicyclist pedaling your favourite parkway, you’re better able to cope with and fend off that scary possible self, the bedridden nursing-home resident.

So, if we can help people create concrete images of themselves in the future as healthy, this may be a strong motivating force in helping them achieve specific health goals.

RD: This brings us to healthy behaviours. Which three top your list?

KH: In terms of well being, there is a universal need for humans to feel loved as well as a universal need to feel productive. Therefore, I would say that at least one behavior to nurture connections as well as one behavior to make oneself useful to others would be important for overall health. Specifically, what those behaviors should be will depend on who you are and your social context.

I would also have to place exercise among the top three because of its pervasive and positive influence on both physical and mental health.

Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of the original interview, which appeared in AHB September/October 2007.