Communication Skill and Human Connection in an Evolving Demographic Context: Aging Populations

Demographics involves statistical descriptions of the characteristics of various populations and groups. Demographers, then, are concerned with numerical break-downs of population characteristics like income, education, ethnicity, and so on. Of particular interest, given our focus on communication skill and social interaction, is the dramatic demographic shift in the age distribution of populations around the globe. Japan, for example, at 48.6 years, now has the highest average age of any country,3 followed by Western European countries like Germany and Italy (Central Intelligence Agency, n.d.). In the United States, it is projected that this trend, termed the “graying of America,” will, by the year 2034, for the first time ever, lead to more people 65 and older (77.0 million) than 18 and younger (76.5 million; Vespa, 2019).

One of the key reasons that aging matters is because it is strongly (negatively) correlated with cognitive functioning. Putting aside those individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, even among “normal” (i.e., non-pathological) individuals, cognitive ability does decline with age. Writing about his personal experience of aging (when he was 74 years old), the brilliant neuropsychologist Donald Hebb (1978) put it this way: “I’m not quite senile, not yet. I can still keep up appearances, and there are points on which I can still outtalk younger colleagues. But - between you and me, privately - the picture is one of a slow, inevitable loss of cognitive capacity” (p. 23).

On the topic of age-related declines it is common to distinguish two aspects of cognitive functioning (see McGrew, 2004). On one hand there is the ability and knowledge that one has accumulated over the course of a lifetime (often called “acquired” or “crystallized” intelligence) - basically (from Chapter 5), declarative and procedural knowledge. In contrast, “fluid” intelligence refers to reasoning, or novel problem-solving, ability. A great deal of research has focused on changes in both crystallized and fluid functioning from young adulthood into old age (see Salthouse, 2012). As we might expect, acquired knowledge gradually increases over the life span, until people reach their 60s, when declines begin to set in. (And think about it: How many contestants in their 60s, or even their 50s for that matter, do you see on the game show Jeopardy - a classic test of crystallized intelligence?) The story is even more dramatic when it comes to fluid mental abilities. There the research makes clear that people “top out” in their early 20s, after which there is a steady decline throughout the remainder of life. One meta-analysis (Verhaeghen & Salthouse, 1997) involving more than 9,000 participants found that the correlation between age and reasoning ability was r = -.40, a figure that Salthouse (2012, p. 220) described as one of the strongest individual-ditference relationships in the field of psychology. (For you college-aged readers, enjoy it while you’ve got it!)

146 Communication Skills in Evolving Contexts

With respect to message behavior, verbally, old age (particularly people in their late 70s and 80s) is associated problems such as word finding (i.e., coming up with names for things and people) and simpler sentence construction (see Kemper & Hummert, 1997; Kemper & Schmalzreid, 2008; Neumann, Pek- kala, & Datta, 2011). On the input-processing side, older adults may retain their abilities in comprehending individual words, but processing of entire sentences and more extended discourse does decline with advancing age (see Neumann, Pekkala, & Datta, 2011). Nonverbally, encoding of facial expressions appears to diminish in old age, perhaps due to wrinkling and changes in facial musculature (see Feldman & Tyler, 2006). On the decoding side, relative to younger adults, older adults’ identification of facial expressions of emotion is generally less accurate, but this ditference is most pronounced when it comes to recognizing negative emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness where older individuals fare most poorly (see Feldman & Tyler, 2006; Keating, 2016).

Turning to communication-skill acquisition by elderly, normally functioning, adults, to date there is scant empirical research. One study that is available (Caplan & Greene, 1999) involved teaching young and older adults a skill for describing arrays of geometric figures and then having each person apply that skill in 90 practice trials. Recall from Chapter 5 that the equation that describes the course of skill acquisition is:

where “y” represents performance quality, “x” is amount of practice, “b” is performance quality when practice equals zero, and “m” is the slope (or steepness) of the learning curve. In their study, Caplan and Greene assessed performance quality as the time it took to complete each message. The results of the study showed that the older adults did improve (i.e., got faster) over the 90 practice trials, but their rate of improvement, “m,” was significantly lower than for their young-adult counterparts. Basically, the older participants did learn the new skill, they just picked it up more slowly than the younger group (also see Proctor & Dutta, 1995).

Once again, sounding a few notes of balance is in order here. First, it is important to recognize that although cognitive functioning may decline across the span of adulthood, job performance tends to be maintained over the course of one’s working career. Indeed, with the exception of air-traffic controllers, where there is a marked decline with age (and in the United States a mandatory retirement age of 56), and elite athletes, most professions do not show clear age-related declines (Salthouse, 2012). This isn’t terribly surprising, of course, since there are numerous factors in addition to reasoning ability that contribute to the quality of a person’s work - experience and skill, for example, may offset a little mental slowing. Similarly, concerning communication abilities, although there are age-related declines in various aspects of message-production and -processing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are across-the-board declines. There is evidence, for example, that older adults may actually produce “better” stories and narratives than their younger counterparts (see Kemper & Hummert, 1997). Similarly, there is at least some research indicating that skills involved in providing emotional support and in managing conflict improve well into old age (see Stafford, 2015). Older adults may also develop conversational skills that facilitate social bonding (see Underwood, 2010). And, too, it is important to keep in mind that many deficits in message behavior don’t emerge in non-pathological individuals until their late-70s, 80s, or even beyond (Neumann, Pekkala, & Datta, 2011).

There is one other “twist” on the aging - performance relationship that requires a little discussion. The “complexity effect” concerns the fact that differences in the performance of young versus old adults depends on the complexity, or difficulty, of the task under examination (see Cerella, Poon, & Williams, 1980). That is, for relatively simple tasks, young - old performance differences tend to be minimal, but as task difficulty increases, so do age-related performance deficits (refer to the example of air-traffic controllers above). What this means for interpersonal interaction is that everyday, casual conversation, which shouldn’t be terribly taxing, probably won’t be characterized by performance difficulties. In contrast, more cognitively demanding interactions may magnify age-related declines. I am reminded of my grandmother, who, in her late 80s, delighted in conversation, stories, and jokes with family and friends, but fretted about visits to her doctors who, she knew, would ask her difficult questions.

On the larger issue of the relationship between aging, communication skills, and human connection, it is the case that both social isolation and feelings of loneliness among the elderly are associated with physical declines and increased mortality risk.4 In one study, for example, following an initial assessment of loneliness among adults over 60, the mortality rate over the next six years was 22.8% for the group originally determined to be lonely, but only 14.2% for the not-lonely group (Perissinotto, Stijacic Cenzer, & Covinsky, 2012). What is particularly interesting, though, is that relatively few elderly adults report feeling lonely. Dykstra (2009) summarizes research showing that only about 13% of American adults over the age of 65 report that loneliness is a “serious problem” for them personally. For adults aged 65 to 79, self-reported loneliness is no greater than for young and middle-aged adults. It is only among people 80 years and older that loneliness shows a marked increase, and the only group reporting higher loneliness than the very old were those aged 15-24. (For you college-aged readers, yikes!)

Regarding the low incidence of loneliness among older adults, it is well known that as a group elderly individuals do tend to have smaller social networks than their younger adult counterparts, but they also tend to be more satisfied with their relationships - and hence, relatively low rates of reported loneliness (see End Note 4). Socioemotional selectivity theory (e.g., Carstensen, Fung, &

Box 11.3

"Being old means that everything you know is wrong and all your friends are dead."

- restroom graffiti, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Charles, 2003) explains that, as people age and begin to perceive that time is short, there is a shift away from the importance placed on future-oriented goals like acquiring information and making new social contacts, accompanied by correspondingly greater emphasis on more immediate, emotionally relevant experiences that derive from close social ties and positively-laden interactions. Consequently, older adults choose to trim their social contacts to those that are most familiar and rewarding, such as romantic partners, friends, and family members. Moreover, and most relevant to our interest in communication skill and human connection, older adults may adopt communication strategies (e.g., conflict avoidance and forgiveness) that enhance the quality of their interactions with others (Luong, Charles, & Fingerman, 2011)

One area where age-related conversational difficulties often arise is in in- tergenerational contexts - that is, interactions between members of different age cohorts (e.g., a young adult and an older adult). As you might imagine, differences in experiences, values, and perceptions of what is socially appropriate may lead to misunderstandings or other sub-optimal outcomes. When younger people hold negative stereotypes about the abilities of older adults, they may adopt a simplified style of speech (e.g., talking more slowly, speaking more loudly, elementary word choice and sentence construction) - a phenomenon termed “over-accommodation” - that older people may find patronizing or demeaning (see Hummert, Garstka, Ryan, & Bonnesen, 2004; Williams & Harwood, 2004). In other cases, younger people may “under-accommodate” by instructing older people about what to do with little regard for the older individuals’ own wishes. Conversely, older adults may dismiss or ignore the perspectives and inputs of younger individuals. In any of these cases, we’re talking about interactions that are likely to be pretty far removed from the “transcendent ideal.” But, while acknowledging that intergenerational interactions can be “quite problematic,” Jon Nussbaum (2007, p. 4) continues by noting that “At other times, these ... interactions are the most satisfying and glorious moments in our lives” (p. 5). His primary point being that communication skill plays an essential role in fostering those “satisfying and glorious moments,” and ultimately, quality of life in old age.

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