Perceptions of Death among Older Adults: Integrating Terror Management Theory and the Lifespan Development Framework

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Virginia Tech

Terror management theory (TMT) seeks to understand religious worldview adherence, positing that worldview beliefs can abate existential threats such as mortality salience. Most research on TMT has employed young samples, so influences on older adults' experiences of mortality salience are unclear. Simultaneously, research on death anxiety shows that older people may view their own death more favorably than younger individuals do. Guided by the lifespan development perspective, I investigated whether the range of life experiences and interpretation of them might account for perceptions of death in old age. A multi-phase content analysis of in-depth interview transcripts from 16 adults aged 65+ focused on narratives of life events, religious worldviews, and death. The findings suggested how lifespan adversity, such as the death of a loved one, promoted growth in self and religious belief that enhanced participants' reported relationship with the sacred. In turn, participants' views of and beliefs about death were without fear, indicating the influence of highly individualized and deeply spiritual religious worldview beliefs on the abatement of death fear. These findings support extension of TMT to older people by identifying the impact of lifespan experiences with trauma and adversity as contributing to less superficial, more individualized conceptions of religious worldviews. Such worldviews, contingent upon growth from adaptation to lifespan experiences, may indeed lead to less death anxiety and reduce the effects of mortality salience in old age.

spirituality, death, lifespan, adversity, terror management theory