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When I’m 64
respond when asked the question “Who am I?” Similarly, how do older adults perceive their future selves? Moreover, how do older adults experience and evaluate their lives? Are they satisfied or are they depressed?
One intriguing issue in this research area is that, although many older adults acknowledge that their chronological age is older than that of others, and older than in previous life stages, they do not consider themselves “old” (Linn and Hunter, 1979; Neugarten and Hagestad, 1976). Instead, they perceive themselves as “young.” Moreover, although older adults are more likely than college students to describe themselves in terms of ageist stereotypes, they are just as likely as college students to describe themselves in terms of youthful traits, like bold or impatient (Mueller, Wonderlich, and Dugan, 1986). The gap between actual and perceived age is also reflected in the fact that individuals select increasingly higher chronological ages as the onset of “old age” as they themselves get older (Seccombe and Ishii Kuntz, 1991). In other words, 65 no longer seems old when one is 60, compared to when one was 35.
Additional evidence of the disconnect between actual age and perceived age can be garnered from research employing implicit measures of group identification. Hummert and colleagues (2002) found, for example, that older adults associate self-related words (e.g., me, mine) with the category “young” more rapidly than they associate these words with the category “old.” Although such out-group identification could be viewed as maladaptive, the research suggests otherwise. Identifying with youth rather than old age is correlated with higher scores on tests of physical and emotional health (Hummert et al., 2002; Tuckman and Lavell, 1957). Thus, despite perceivers’ efforts to categorize older adults as old based on chronological age, many older adults eschew the label, and this resistance to such labeling seems to have positive consequences.
Although older adults do not always perceive themselves as old, chronological age predicts interesting differences between the self-views of younger and older adults. For instance, because older adults have had a lifetime to accumulate self-knowledge, they have a more secure and complex view of the self, compared to younger adults (Perlmutter, 1988). Moreover, there is considerable stability in self-perceptions and identity from mid-life to late life. Whitbourne and Sneed (2002) suggest that older adults are able to maintain a consistent identity by assimilating age-related changes into their existing self-concepts, and only shifting their self-views through a process called “accommodation” when assimilation is no longer possible. The balance between assimilation and accommodation results in an older adult who does not deny age-related changes and maintains a stable sense of self.
Debunking the misperception that old age is a stagnant developmental period, research on possible selves suggests that old age is a time when