Older Adults' Self-Assessments of Health: Personal and Contextual Influences Throughout the Life Course

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Virginia Tech

The purpose of this study was to examine older adults' perceptions of health by exploring life course factors perceived as shaping the meanings of health in their daily lives. Using life course and life span perspectives as the theoretical framework to guide this mixed method study, I identified the contextual factors that influence older adults' health perceptions and behaviors. Through self-report questionnaires from 111 individuals (M age = 74 yrs., S.D. = 5.64) and in-depth interviews with 30 of the older adults from the larger sample (11 women and 19 men), I gained an understanding of how individual experiences and societal expectations influence the meanings older adults attach to health.

Results indicated that being female and having more years of formal education were associated with higher health ratings. Findings from the qualitative inquiry enhanced the quantitative results by highlighting the contextual factors that influenced older adults' health ratings. Examination of how the older adults came to their health rating provided definitions of health based on physical status, activity level, and social comparisons. Life course influences emerged as the older adults described what their health means to them. Activity level, independence, and age prescriptions were reflections of childhood health experiences that the older adults used to relate their present meaning of health in their everyday lives.

Life Course Perspective, Meanings of Health, Self-ratings of Health