Aging and Personality Changes


By Joyce Wayne

Some days I don’t recognize myself. As I grow older, I’ve noticed that I’m less insistent on staying on top of every little thing in my home or keeping abreast of the news, and not just local news. Canadian news and international news, too. I’m easing up on the demands I place on myself.

Do personality types change with age?

What I’m learning is that our personalities, which I assumed were hard-wired into our brains, can change in unexpected ways as we age. Psychologists once believed that we stay the same as we age, but this view is changing. The long-standing theory that older people are entirely set in their ways is becoming obsolete.

In The Atlantic magazine, Faith Hill reports, “Something unexpected happens to many people as they reach and pass their 60s: their personality starts changing.” It’s not just cognitive impairment or dementia. “People’s personalities can morph in response to their circumstances, helping them shift priorities, come to terms with loss, and acclimate to a changing life. These developments illuminate what personality really is: not a permanent state but an adaptive way of being. And on a societal level, personality changes might tell us something about the conditions that older adults face,” Hill writes.

Big five personality traits 

The method psychologists are using to determine these changes is to measure the “Big Five” personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, openness to experience, and neuroticism. Certain events, such as retirement, empty nesting, and widowhood, can exert a significant impact on our aging personalities.

For instance, retirement can turn out to be a parade of wondrous experiences travel, hobbies, and increasing time with friends and family. Even making new friends. Or it can play out differently, with the retiree experiencing loneliness, feelings of abandonment, and helplessness. As the University of Zurich’s personality psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn told The Atlantic: What are people’s lives like?  If someone is no longer strong enough to go to dinner parties every week, they might grow less extroverted; if someone needs to be more careful of physical dangers like falling, it makes sense that they’d grow more neurotic.” Health plays a significant role. If you can’t safely drive to events, if some of your friends are very ill, and if socializing becomes increasingly complex, it’s no wonder that older people might feel lonely, and dissatisfied with their life.  

Old age stereotypes

Yet it’s important to see that personality changes could be positive and usher in a new, more meaningful lifestyle. As Hill writes: “There’s a stereotype that older people are grumpy shut-ins—withering away inside while yelling at some kid to get off their lawn. That judgment is obviously sweeping and unfair, but perhaps it’s also emerged, in part, from some real tendencies—tendencies that might be better understood as justified reactions to a harsh and inaccessible world.”

As we grow older, we can battle against this negative stereotype. I might spend some of my days reading a silly mystery novel or watching a Netflix series. Still, on the whole, I honestly believe I’m a much nicer person than I once was when I was young. More understanding, slightly more patient, and relaxed.

“One study, for instance, found that older adults who felt they had more social support were more likely to grow in conscientiousness over time. I can imagine similarly positive results might stem from older adults having access to the health care they need or having the tools to navigate their daily lives safely and without total dependence on others,” suggests Hill.

The stereotype of the grumpy older adult need not be the personality profile to emulate. For the last decade, I have found myself much less prone to judge others or neglect their needs. Life experience has taught me that people have their trials and hardships, and it’s much more productive to be helpful than to be negative.

Retirement planning in Canada

My husband and I regularly discuss our future options. We ask ourselves what would happen if we couldn’t climb the many stairs in our home. Or if our health seriously deteriorated. I worry that one day I could develop trouble reading or typing since I spend most of the workweek writing or at least thinking about what I’m planning to write. Like most older people, we worry about finances, too. What if our investments tanked or inflation became unbearable? Since we wish to age in place, we’re thinking about the eventual cost of home care, and how long we’ll be able to drive or travel.

It might sound grim, but then again, life as a retiree and older person needn’t be. It can be vastly rewarding. Not only is retirement a reason to retreat from the rat race, but it is a perfect time to follow your heart and your interests. So, try not to be too grumpy or close your mind and spirit to friends and family. Take the initiative. Be the one to call your friend to set up a lunch or movie date. Invite friends and family to dinner at your house. It needn’t be an elaborate feast. I’ve started ordering in for dinner parties, and no one seems to mind.

And please don’t forget that there are more of us than ever in Canada. As of July 2022, there were 7,330,605 people 65 years of age and older living in Canada or almost 20 percent of the population and growing. Life expectancy at 65 is 19.49 years for males and 22.19 years for females. Enjoy your changing personality and the many years ahead of a life well-lived.

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