Current Projects

 

Younger and Older Adults’ Memories of Loss and Illness
Well-being in the Second Half of Life
Functions of Recent and Distant Memories
Stories of our Youth: The Reminiscence Bump
“In Memoriam:” Identity Strivings in Emerging Adulthood
Self Continuity
The “Brush with Death” Study
Dignity Therapy
Death Over Dinner
Memories for the Dying Days
Remember Me as Virtuous
The Resilient Self


Younger and Older Adults’ Memories of Loss and Illness

Loss of a loved one is challenging when it occurs (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). Long after, individuals remember such events but may also ruminate (e.g., Eisma et al., 2012). Recalling loss and illness may, however, also have positive aspects. Participants (N = 99 younger adults, 87 older adults) narrated their life’s two most challenging events and a neutral event. Older adults were more likely than young to share death-illness events. To examine this further, participants who shared a death-illness memory were selected to share the death-illness event to both another non-death challenging event and a neutral event. Rumination about, and Personal Growth from each event were rated and themes of Communion (e.g., love and friendship; McAdams, 2001) were reliably content-coded (kappa = .79) from the memories. ANOVAs indicate personal growth and communion occur more for death-illness events than for other challenging events or neutral events. Rumination was more likely following a death/illness or challenging event compared to a neutral event. In terms of age, young adults were more likely to ruminate following any type of event than older adults. This refutes the stereotype that older adults ruminate more, in general, than younger adults. Overall, the study findings identify death-illness events as ones that individuals may suffer from ruminating about but that are not uniformly difficult: they also result in greater feelings of personal growth and stronger expressions of feelings of communion with others.


Well-being in the Second Half of Life

This study examines whether looking back in autobiographical time and one’s place in chronological time affect current well-being. Participants (N = 470) in the second half of life (age 50 – 90 years) completed a life story matrix, rating positive life events for perceived control, and influence on who they have become. They also reported negative and positive well-being. Findings show that recalling one’s self in the reminiscence bump years, not non-bump years, is related to well-being. While perceived control links to greater life satisfaction, viewing bump events as highly influential on the current self relates to lower self-esteem. Chronological age is associated with lower well-being but only very late in life. Findings are discussed in relation to the functional approach to autobiographical memory and lifespan developmental theory.


Functions of Recent and Distant Memories

Theory suggests that self- and memory-related factors influence use of autobiographical memory to serve adaptive functions in daily life. No research has empirically identified the factors that predict specific functional memory use (e.g., self-continuity, social-bonding, directing behavior). In two studies (Study One, N = 100; Study Two, N = 354), select self and memory factors were related to reports of functional memory use. Study Two replicated Study One findings and also included additional self-related variables. Across studies, self-relevant memories were more frequently reported to serve all functions. Beyond that, however, findings were function-specific. In terms of self-related factors: adults with lower self-concept clarity more frequently used memories to serve a self-continuity function. Trait personality predicted memory function, with extraversion related to the self-continuity function and neuroticism and agreeableness related to the social-bonding function. With respect to memory-related factors: recent memories were more likely than distant ones to serve self-continuity and directing-behavior functions. More negative memories were used for directing behavior and more positive memories were used for social bonding. Findings are discussed in terms of the multiple self- and memory-related factors that come into play to allow human use of memory to serve functions that help navigate daily life.


Stories of our Youth: The Reminiscence Bump

The reminiscence bump is well-established: adults in the second half of life remember inordinately more events from young adulthood. This report, introducing a new theoretical direction, investigates the adaptive value of such recall. We examine whether perceived control over bump events predicts current life satisfaction. Participants (N = 492, 49-90 years) reported the important events in their lives, rating perceived control over each. Life satisfaction and covariates were assessed. Perceived control over bump-year events (but not other past events) predicts life satisfaction, for all but the oldest participants. Recalling one’s past is discussed in relation to well-being across adulthood.


“In Memoriam:” Identity Strivings in Emerging Adulthood

In this study, Emerging adults provided an open-ended autobiographical self-defining memory narrative (Blagov & Singer, 2004) and three self-attributes representing how they would like to be remembered after death. Narratives were reliably content-coded for Fundamentality, (Baltes &Smith, 1990) and Event Type (Thorne & McLean, 2004), and self-attributes were reliably coded for Identity Strivings (Rammstedt & John, 2007; Ryff, 1989). The study investigates emerging adults’ identity in self-defining memories in terms of: (1) Fundamental vs. Non-Fundamental events, (2) Event Types, (3) Identity Strivings, (4) Interrelation of Fundamentality, Event Type,and Identity Striving, and (5) whether 1 – 3 differ by gender, personality, or death experience. Study 1 examines: (i) the extent to which recalling stressful autobiographical events results in anxiety, (ii) whether an open orientation toward the future acts as a buffer when recalling past mortality-related events, and (iii) and whether intimacy acts as an anxiety buffer after recalling a brush with death (Mikulnicer, Florian, & Hirschberger 2003). As predicted, recalling stressful events resulted in current feelings of anxiety, and recalling mortality-related events specifically resulted in greater death anxiety. Having an open ended future time perspective buffered anxiety for the everyday stress condition, but not for the mortality- related condition. Anticipation of a close intimate relationship in future was related to lower anxiety levels after recalling a brush with death (but not in the everyday anxiety or control groups.

Study 2 examined gender differences and also whether narrating one’s closeness to others when recalling a brush with death buffers anxiety. Emerging adults (N = 50; 25 males; 18-22 years) recalled an autobiographical“brush with death” followed by the State Anxiety Inventory (Marteau & Bekker, 1992). Results reveal women’s narratives show a greater concern that they might die during the event (i.e., subjective death-threat) than men’s, though they do not differ on the actual threat faced.


Self Continuity Project

Older and younger individuals face difficult events in their lives that can challenge their identity (e.g., loss of a loved one, illness, job loss) thereby negatively affect their psychological well-being. What psychological processes aid people in the face of such events? The current study examines how older and younger adults use personal memory of the events of their life (i.e., autobiographical memory) to maintain a continuous sense of self in the face of difficult events. Specifically, autobiographical reasoning (i.e., self-event and event-event connections) presented in narratives of challenging life events and one’s phase in life (i.e., age) are proposed to be key in predicting the experience of self-continuity. It is expected that autobiographical reasoning plays a mediating role linking the relation between age and experiential self-continuity in two adult age groups (N = 130; emerging adults, 18-27 years; older adults, 60-75 years).


The “Brush with Death” Study

Classic lifespan theory suggests that individuals’ time perspective shifts as they move across adulthood (Neugarten, 1979), changing the extent to which the experienced past and anticipated future may act as resources. Emerging adults’ past is short with a sense of optimistic anticipation concerning the future (Arnett, 2000). They have, however, already faced everyday stressors and may even have experienced a ‘brush with death. This study examines: (i) the extent to which recalling stressful autobiographical events results in anxiety, and (ii) whether orientation toward the future acts as a buffer when recalling past mortality-related events. Emerging adults’ (N = 120) future time perspective (Carstensen & Lang, 1996) and anticipated future intimacy (Sharabany, 1994) were assessed. They were then assigned to one of three conditions, recalling: a brush with death, an everyday stressor, or past neutral activities. Following narration of the event, state anxiety was assessed (Marteau & Bekker, 1992). As predicted, recalling stressful events resulted in current feelings of anxiety, and recalling mortality-related events specifically resulted in death anxiety. Also as expected, mortality-related anxiety was buffered by future orientation. Anticipation of a close intimate relationship in future, and having a realistic sense of future time were related to lower anxiety levels after recalling a brush with death (but not in the everyday anxiety or control groups). Findings are discussed in terms of shifting relations of past to future orientations across the lifespan.


Dignity Therapy

Maintaining dignity at the end of life can be challenging for cancer patients. Dignity Therapy (DT) is an intervention that guides a patient through a structured life review process, resulting in a written Legacy Document that can be shared with the patient’s family members and friends. Though research has demonstrated that patients and families feel they benefit from DT, there has been a call for research to understand mechanisms that produce positive patient outcomes. The current proposal involves a cross-college collaboration aimed at addressing this issue in a sample of 32 elderly cancer patients. We will examine the empathic process involved in DT delivery and the extent of important psychosocial themes (purpose in life, meaning-making and communion) in the final product, the Legacy Document. This work provides a feasibility assessment of our analytic methods with this population. Completion of this project will prepare the way for a larger NCI grant to analyze the full sample (N=280) that is being collected in the parent study. In terms of increasing quality of care at end-of-life, this study will lead to a better understanding of when DT is most efficacious. It will guide honing of the intervention to improve patient care, with the goal of achieving meaningful psychosocial benefits for end-of-life cancer patients and their families. The project goal is in line with Triple Aim in its focus on improving patient experience though partnering with individuals and families.


Death Over Dinner

Social taboos towards thinking and talking about death create a communication gap concerning end-of-life medical planning (Yingling & Keeley, 2007). Young adults have more anxiety about the concept of death (Twelker, 2004) and show less understanding about end-of-life decision-making (Wiener, 2012) than any other adult age group. A recent death education initiative known as Death over Dinner (initiated in 2012; http://deathoverdinner.org/) has had success in encouraging conversations about death and end-of-life wishes between family, friends, and strangers (South & Elton, 2017). As such, Death Over Dinner may be uniquely helpful in providing the missing link between opportunities for end-of-life planning and populations (e.g., young adults) who have little access to education about end-of-life. This project addresses the level of anxiety and lack of knowledge among young adults by evaluating Death Over Dinner as an intervention in which young adults are encouraged to think about and plan for their eventual death. The study is the first to examine direct effects of this intervention in terms of quantifiable outcomes like death attitudes, conversations with loved ones about end-of-life, and education about end-of-life options. After all, “The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation,” (Michael Hebb, co-founder of Death Over Dinner).


Memories for the Dying Days

Given the aging of the Baby Boomers, nearly twenty million American older adults will die over the next 10 years. Most will leave behind a widowed spouse (National Center for Health Statistics, 2014). Death of a loved one, particularly a spouse, is rated as one of life’s most stressful normative events (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). Research on spousal loss has mainly focused on grief symptomology or maladjustment immediately following loss, neglecting examination of the potential for positive outcomes that may emerge over time. One component of the end of a loved one’s life that may greatly impact grief trajectories and long-term outcomes is the setting in which the loved one died (for example, at home, in hospital). The quality of the spouse’s dying days, including the quality of the environment in which they die, is crucially important for the dying person and those who live on (Heyland et al., 2006). This project investigates the relation of place of death for older adults to their spouses’ memories from the dying days and subsequent grief and outcome trajectories. The goal is to establish underlying rationales for the importance of place of death in end-of-life care models, and to determine which environment is most likely to foster positive memories from the dying days that can lead to lasting positive outcomes for those who are now widowed.


Remember Me as Virtuous

During a funeral or memorial service, it is common to share stories from the life of the deceased. These stories can be considered Self-Defining Memories (SDMs; Singer et al., 2013), described as depicting the person’s true identity. Ultimate SDMs explored in this project represent the single memory by which individuals state they would like to be remembered after death. The project investigates the content of ultimate SDMs to identify enduring themes across memories. Specifically, we examine whether these memories include Universal Virtues (e.g., Peterson & Seligman, 2004). A preliminary study was recently conducted to determine the feasibility of coding Ultimate SDMs for Universal virtues with Young Adults. The majority of participants told narratives representing virtuous qualities. Humanity was the most frequent virtue found in this age group. A second study is now being conducted to identify virtues in Ultimate SDMs from individuals across the life span (i.e., young, middle, and older adults), and to understand whether virtues will be more often included in SDMs told within the context of remembrance after death (i.e., versus a control condition focused on a story of oneself in the present). Participants will be recruited into two story sharing contexts: Remember Me and Present Me, before narrating their SDMs. Differences across age groups and study conditions will be examined. Questionnaires about psychological wellbeing and personality trait characteristics will also be completed by participants so that relations being these self-reported measures and narrative features can be explored.


 

 

The Resilient Self

Several aspects of positive self-functioning increase as we age (Diehl & High, 2011). Although stressful life events affect mental health across adulthood, the aging self may show resilience despite life challenges through feelings of personality continuity. Using moderated mediation analyses, this study determines how stressful events affect self-functioning in young and older adults, and investigates subjective personality continuity as a buffer. Participants (N = 99 young adults, 87 older adults) reported the number of stressful events experienced in the last six years (Life Experiences Survey) and completed self-functioning measures (i.e., self-concept clarity, self-esteem, self-acceptance). Personality continuity, feeling one’s trait personality is similar to six years ago, was also measured. Older adults scored higher on all self-functioning variables (Aim 1; ps < .001). Experiencing more stressful events was associated with lower self-concept clarity, < .01, and self-esteem, p < .001, particularly for younger adults (Aim 2; < .05). Despite stereotypes, older adults report higher self-concept clarity, esteem, and acceptance. Stressful events at any age, however, can challenge the self. For older adults, the feeling of being the same person over time, regardless of stressful events, supports resilient aging.