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Aging Well: Time Use Patterns of Older Canadians

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Aging well: Time use patterns of older Canadians

by Donna Dosman, Susan Stobert and Norah Keating
Part 1 - Engagement or disengagement
Part 2 - Older age provides time for engagement in other activities like rest and leisure
Part 3 - What does aging well mean?

Like other countries in the Western world, Canada 's population is aging. It is expected that the number of Canadians over age 65 will reach 22% of the total population by 2026 in comparison to 13% in 2005 and just 8% in 1971 (Statistics Canada Cansim). Over the past few decades, researchers have been concerned with the negative aspects of population aging such as how to care for those who are old, or how to manage pension schemes for increasing numbers of retirees. Yet with the impending retirement of a large cohort of baby boomers, attention has turned to more positive aspects of aging associated with 'aging well.' Even with this more positive approach, seniors have been typically stereotyped in one of two ways. They are seen either as individuals who withdraw after retirement, becoming inactive citizens no longer contributing to society (Hicks 2002) or as people who are busier now than ever, filling their time with volunteering and helping others (Kelley 1993 and 1997). Moving beyond stereotypes is needed if we are to gain real insight into whether older Canadians are 'aging well'. Time use surveys allow the examination of exactly what the older population is doing in various aspects of their lives.

The term 'aging well' now has become part of the language used when thinking about older adults. What it actually means to 'age well' has been the subject of an ongoing debate for the past 50 years. One of the current most accepted views is that 'aging well' is about finding meaning and purpose in the activities in which one engages. Engagement in activities which are personally meaningful and freely chosen has been found to be related to positive physical and psychological outcomes (McPherson 2004).

What are those personally meaningful activities? Some activities are especially important in contributing to a sense of purpose, morale, and identity (Baker, Cahalin, Gerst, and Burr, 2005). For example, both men and women spend significant amounts of time over the course of their lives developing areas of expertise and their careers. For some, work is both fulfilling and important to their sense of who they are (Baker et al. 2005). Older workers, in particular men who are in better health and have a higher level of education, are more likely to stay attached to the work force (Schellenberg, Turcotte, and Ram, 2005). While some may continue in the labour force because of retirement policies, societal expectations or economic necessity (Caro and Bass, 1995; Schellenberg et al. 2005), others may remain engaged because employment is personally fulfilling. Such older Canadians talk about the positive challenges of work, the social contacts, and a sense of being needed and useful (Schellenberg et al. 2005).

Different types of unpaid work also may contribute to a sense of meaning in one's life. Engagement in these activities can act as a coping mechanism for older Canadians who are shifting roles from worker to retiree (Bradley 1999/2000). For many older adults, volunteer work presents an opportunity to continue to use their skills and provides them with a sense of purpose by passing on knowledge to future generations (Ranzijn 2002). Providing care or assistance to a family member or friend provides an opportunity to reciprocate for care or favours received at an earlier time. Caring for one's home is an activity that contributes to a sense of place and personal identity (Rubinstein, 1990). All of these contributions of unpaid work may add to one's sense of identity and are a means of giving back to society as a whole (Ranzijn 2002).

Additionally, individuals may spend time in leisure activities. Through such things as physical exertion, mental stimulation, social interaction, hands-on hobbies, or meditative quiet time, leisure can provide opportunities for meaning-making and thereby ways to maintain a sense of purpose, self-esteem, and self-identities (Hendricks and Cutler, 2003). Social connections provide an individual with emotional and physical support and a sense of belonging, and are a resource in times of need (Baumeister and Leary, 1995; Myers and Diener, 1995; Ryan and Deci, 2000). Individuals may benefit from different sets of activities that promote 'aging well' but the combination of activities likely differs among individuals because not everyone will experience the same positive outcomes from engaging in the same activity.

There is no clear recipe for 'aging well.' In fact, some have argued that to age well, older adults need to gradually and graciously withdraw from life, slowly disengaging from activities (Cumming and Henry 1961). Others would argue that 'aging well' is about continued levels of engagement in a range of activities (Atchely 1989; Kelley 1993 and 1997). Older Canadians are a heterogeneous group and as such there is not one optimal formula for them to age well. The diversity in activity patterns results from the fact that older adults are navigating through a range of major transitions in later life, such as retirement, home downsizing, widowhood, and/or declining health, at varying times throughout their lives with different sets of health, financial, and social resources. Yet even in the face of declining health, individuals can optimize their resources, modify their activity levels and/or adapt their environments to meet their needs (Baltes and Baltes, 1990). This view advances that older Canadians who 'age well' are able to find a 'fit' or balance between their activities and their resources, thus finding meaning or satisfaction with their particular combination of activities relative to their level of resources.

The purpose of this paper is to gain a better understanding of the relationship between aging well (measured here as life satisfaction), level of health resources and activity patterns of older Canadians. Time use data are an ideal vehicle to do this since they provide us with information on how older adults spend their time. First, general activity patterns for men and women across later life are examined. Second, general time use patterns are examined across three points in time to gain insight into whether these patterns vary over time. Third, the activity patterns for men and women in later life who have different health statuses are examined by whether they are satisfied overall with their life. The measure of life satisfaction is used to capture the respondents' sense of fit between their activities and health resources. These analyses allow us to understand whether there are different activity patterns for those who are 'aging well' compared to those who are not and what role good health plays as a resource.

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Date modified: 2006-07-26 Important Notices