ANN ARBOR—A new study indicates that the elderly ages 85 and older mainly worry about health and memory, and some will seek more social contact as their worries increase with age.
The social contact involved other elderly people, as well as the individual's family, friends and neighbors, said Ruth Dunkle, the Wilbur J. Cohen Collegiate Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work.
"The social support from family and friends could have been a reaction to the increasing worry," she said.
Dunkle—an expert in gerontology—co-authored the study that examined what worried the elderly and what patterns developed.
The study sampled 193 Midwesterners ages 85 and older between 1986 and 1995. Only 23 survivors completed the research during the nine-year period. Despite the small sample size, the study is unique in that it allowed for the examination of worry patterns and how physical, psychological and social factors contributed to these patterns, Dunkle said.
Elderly subjects were followed for nine years in order to identify what they worried about, such as concerns about sleep, taking medications, difficulties with friends and health of family members. A dramatic increase in frequency and severity of worry occurred for all elders over the 9-year study period for all aspects of worry. The increase among this elderly group is related to issues of decreasing sense of control triggered by growing memory and physical limitations, the researchers said.
Overall, while worry increased for all over the study period, the pattern was not consistent for each person, she said. For some, the worry ebbed and flowed.
As the number of elderly people surpassing age 85 increases, the study offers several implications for social work practice in gerontology. Practitioners can provide information to help the elderly cope with the fears that fuel their worries, Dunkle said. When social workers work with very old clients, the patients' concerns about health- and memory-related issues must be assessed, possibly referring them to a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.
The researchers include lead author Hae-Sook Jeon of Catholic University in Korea and Beverly Roberts of the University of Florida.
The findings appear in a recent special issue on aging in Health & Social Work.