Wednesday, 12 October 2011

What is an ‘older adult’?

It may seem like a fairly simple question and as soon as it’s asked many of you will instantly conjure up an image of what you perceive an older adult to be. No doubt as you yourself get older, the image or perception of an older adult is also pushed back and gradually gets older.
So when does someone become an older adult?
Is it at retirement age? I would suggest not as people retire at different ages and for different reasons. Is there a milestone or magical age where we become an older adult? Again maybe not as time and ageing treats us all differently depending on our lifestyle and genetic make-up among other things. So does this leave some measure of cognitive and/or physical functioning, that once we reach or drop below we are classified as an older adult? This seems in some part logical but there appears to be no such standard for which one is considered old or young.
It therefore seems that as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is the classification of an older adult. The reason I ask this is because with my current study and recruitment drive for participants, the boundaries for older are at best vague. Using pilot data the boundaries set for this study is 50-60 but is this right? In a review article by Voelcker-Rehage (2008) there are approximately 20 different age groups categorised as older adults. These range from 50-59 to 59-81 with the oldest set at 62-95. Of the age ranges set only two cover the same period of time and these are ages 60-69. At the largest end of the scale 33 years is the difference between the extremes of older adulthood. This is so varied that at the other end of the scale, Mark Zuckerberg (aged 27) the founder of facebook has been born, educated and created a global phenomena that gives him a personal wealth of approximately $17.5 billion with 6 years left. So it seems that so much can be achieved and changed in that period of time, that maybe 33 years is just too long.
This however, still does not answer the question... What is an older adult? The review article by Voelcker-Rehage (2008) suggests that various studies found declines through all these ages with the youngest older adult group of 50-59 showing declines in their abilities to learn. This coupled with the pilot data we have used suggests that the age range of 50-60 years old we have set is right. But are they strictly an older adult? Either way when exactly should the title or classification of older adult be used to describe a vastly varied group of individuals?

Voelcker-Rehage, C., Motor-skill learning in older adults - a review of studies on age-related differences. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity, 2008. 5(1): p. 5-16.

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