Personality Shifts in Older Age

Most will agree that, to a large degree, a tiger doesn’t change its stripes – meaning that once firmly in adulthood, people don’t fundamentally change who they are or their core personality.  But new research has found that although adults tend to discover their true nature when they pass through their teens and early 20s, change can begin to occur once again when people reach 60 and beyond. 

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, some of the observed changes in personality among older adults can be attributed to cognitive changes, impairment or dementia, but studies find that shifts can also occur due to circumstances.  The loss of a life partner, changes in physical ability, and the acknowledgment of dwindling time to live can all contribute to personality changes. 

The strongest personality changes usually occur among people before the age of 30, and researchers are now discovering, after the age of 60.  Life events like retirement, loss of a spouse, or changes in living arrangements can have varying effects on older adults.  Quality of life can have a direct impact on personality.   For example, if older adults no longer can drive at night, they are less able to participate in certain social activities and may become more introverted.  Fear of falling could lead to growing neuroticism – responding poorly to minor frustrations which can lead to anger, anxiety, irritability or depression. 

In contrast, some older adults adjust their priorities later in life, gaining appreciation for the time they have left, and searching for meaning and connection. Seniors may focus on spending time with loved ones, and perhaps seek adventure less and adjust to changes that come with aging.   With strong social support, older adults can better navigate the changes in circumstances that come with growing old.  Communities that address seniors’ physical and emotional needs can help older adults thrive and experience less isolation and loneliness and a greater sense of belonging.  By building a diverse and robust social network, older adults can stay engaged later in life and less isolated, adapting to changes with more ease.