by Taeh A. Ward, Ph.D.

Throughout life, we deal with changes in our roles, responsibilities, relationships, physical and emotional health, and in other areas that we do not always recognize. Around us, the world changes continuously such that we must adjust to social, cultural, and economic shifts. There are life-phase changes viewed as positive such as completing one’s education and having children; and there are sometimes negative changes such as the loss of loved ones and declines in functional independence. Coping with life-phase changes is a journey we all must take but which can evoke stress. Research indicates that feelings of control are related to positive outcomes in health and memory, but this sense of control over our lives, including aging, decreases as we get older. As such, it is important to develop strategies for adaptive coping to maximize sense of control and the potential for positive outcomes throughout life.

Perceived Control

Perceived control is one’s perception regarding their ability to influence outcomes or events. One major life-phase change older adults sometimes face is moving to a retirement community such as assisted-living. Research shows that having a greater sense of control is associated with better health among older adults regardless of whether they live in a structured setting or in the community. For example,
residents of nursing facilities tend to have better outcomes if they remain involved in selecting their daily activities and other choices. Retaining a good sense of control is associated with better general health, health-related behaviors, and longevity. For example, individuals with a higher sense of control are more likely to exercise regularly and therefore may have better health. So how does one maintain a sense of control when dealing with events such as retirement and other life-phases changes? 

Strategies to Enhance Coping

In any given situation, there is generally some element that can be modified or controlled. By finding what can be controlled, individuals are more likely to use effective strategies in their lives, which result in better outcomes. For example, fear of memory loss can lead to the perception that one is no longer in control of cognitive performance. However, by using strategies such as taking notes and repeating important information, one can enhance learning and therefore maximize control over memory. Physical activity is another means by which to maintain control. For example, a fear of falling can develop as individuals get older, particularly if they have fallen in the past. This can sometimes lead to restriction of activity and physical deconditioning, which can lead to additional falls. So, continuing to engage in consistent and safe physical activity (e.g. using assistive devices such as a cane or walker) can reduce the potential for falls and therefore increase control and ability to cope with changes in physical abilities. 

Active coping is another positive strategy, which includes taking active steps to reduce or remove stressors and deal with stressors which cannot be eliminated. For example, remaining involved in activities such as exercise, reading, prayer, volunteerism, and socializing increases the likelihood of experiencing positive emotions even when coping with the loss of a loved one or other stressor. Creating a plan for dealing with potential stressors and thinking ahead about how best to cope can also be helpful (e.g. taking pictures of treasured belongings which cannot be kept when downsizing or moving to a retirement community). Additional coping strategies include positive reframing, acceptance, use of humor, religious faith, as well as seeking emotional support, assistance, or information from family and friends. 

When it becomes difficult to cope with life-phase changes despite using these strategies independently, it is sometimes helpful to seek assistance from a mental health professional such as a psychologist through psychotherapy/counseling. Asking for assistance is a way of maintaining control, and mental health providers have special training to help one identify stressors and learn specific strategies for dealing with life in a positive and effective manner.

Dr. Taeh Ward, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or by visiting pinehurstneuropsychology.com