Perceived control is the key to wellbeing

A South Australian study has found the biggest factor that determines wellbeing among older people is a sense of control over what happens to them.

A sense of control over what happens in their lives is the key to wellbeing in older people, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia.

While challenges like health issues and the loss of friends and family may be greater for older people, they still tend to maintain a sense of wellbeing if they feel in control.

Dr Mandy Stanley from the university’s School of Health Sciences said she set out to discover how older people interpret the concept of ‘wellbeing’ because it was a grey area of occupational therapy literature.

“Not only weren’t we clear about wellbeing – we hadn’t asked older people what they thought wellbeing was,” Dr Stanley said.

“Wellbeing is often measured using scales of life satisfaction or a depression scale – if you are not depressed, you must have wellbeing.”

“Through this research I discovered that the core to wellbeing in older people was perceived control.”

The study examined interviews with older people from a range of backgrounds and positions to learn about their perspectives and understandings of wellbeing.

Common areas of perceived control included keeping to a routine and autonomous decision-making.

“People felt that it was very important to be able to stay in their own homes and be independent but, if they couldn’t do that, they wanted to have autonomy in how they managed their lives,” said Dr Stanley.

“They might trade off a little bit of independence by having someone do their housework but that still enabled them to stay in their own home.”

The Executive Director of COTA Over 50s, Dr Geoffrey Bird, says the choices of older consumers are often limited by prescriptive government policies.

“You have to ask: to what extent are older people engaged in the decision making that determines their future?” he said. “At the moment, it is in a very limited way, if at all.”

“The grass roots sampling of information to shape policy doesn’t seem to be happening and governments keep providing solutions that really aren’t reflective of what the consumers require.”

However, Dr Bird feels the upcoming Australia 2020 summit convened by the Prime Minister presents an opportunity for older consumers to express their views about their future.

“I think Mr Rudd has been well advised by getting people that are representative of the community to attend the summit and if that representation of consumers is extended to policy, that’s a good move.”

Other important areas of perceived control identified by the study were having choice, feeling safe and secure, and having financial security.

The results showed little difference between older people with more money and those on a pension, with the study finding that as long as older people felt they had enough for what they needed, they were happy.

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