Are older adults really as grumpy as we think they are? (by Alie Settje)




It is not an uncommon stereotype of older adults to be portrayed as grumpy. We all have an image in our heads of the grumpy, wrinkly, old man standing on his front porch holding his cane yelling, “you kids get off my lawn!” There is a deeper, psychological reason why they are portrayed this way. For example, mental health is a serious condition that many older adults experience, and therefore affects their mood. Depression, negative environments, and nutrition intake correlates to bad moods among older adults.


Connor, (2010) conducted a study targeting mental health treatment and stigma and they dove into the negative stigma associated with mental health and the undesirable attitudes toward treatment or seeking care (Conner et al., 2010). Depression is a common psychiatric disorder that affects 18.8 million adults or 9.9% of adults in a given year. In 2002, 15% of adults who were 65 and older experienced a depressive disorder and it is predicted that the number will double by 2030 (Conner et al., 2010). Additionally, older adults have the highest number of completed suicide rates. The purpose of this study is to find whether or not the stigma associated with mental illness does affect the likelihood of seeking help and what demographic of people experience the most negative stigma. The authors used a random digit dialing method to study a group of 201 African-American and 229 White older adults, older than 60, and with depression. There were a total of 207 females and 41 males. A total of 198,557 telephone numbers were called. The results of the study conclude that 83.9% of the total participants were not seeking treatment and only 18% said they were likely to seek help in the future. Depression is directly correlated with a worse mood so it would make sense that older adults experiencing depression may be portrayed from younger generations as grumpy. This study supports the stereotype because a high number of older adults experience bad moods. However, it is important to recognize the negative stigma around mental health and that it is a more serious issue than being in a bad mood. Older adults need mental health treatment as much as younger adults, so it is important to recognize the difference between a bad mood and depression (Conner et al., 2010).

Isaacowitz and Seligman (2001) conducted a study that focused on pessimism as risk factor for depressive mood among older adults. The authors conducted an experiment comparing two groups of older adults testing if pessimistic viewpoints change the likelihood of depression (Isaacowitz & Seligman, 2001). One group is a pessimistic explanatory style that predicts changes towards depressive moods and the other is a predictive pessimism style that predict changes in depressive moods. The purpose of this study was to determine if pessimism is a risk factor for lower moods or depression in older adults. The population of the study was older adults at least 64 years old who are not living in an institutionalized care center. There were 71 total participants, 60 women and 11 men. They did a series of questions and followed up with them one month later, then again 6 months later, and then one year after the original interview. The results of the study conclude that some older adults have the emotional experience to change their circumstances when they are told pessimistic phrases or being discouraged. However, Isaacowitz & Seligman (2001) found a correlation between the optimists and pessimists being at a higher risk for depression after a negative outcome. In other words, pessimistic ideologies do have an affect on the likelihood of depression. Additionally, the adults who experienced more negative events throughout their lifespan are more likely to be negative and show the highest levels of depressive symptoms. This relates to the stereotype that older adults are grumpy in the sense that if they are in a very negative environment then it is more likely for them to show pessimistic emotions. In the same way, those who are in a positive environment still might show signs of grumpiness or pessimism if they are exposed to negative risk factors. In conclusion, this study supports the stereotype that older adults are grumpy if they are in a negative environment (Isaacowitz & Seligman, 2001).

In a 2015 study about emotional regulation and depression, Prakash dove into the ability of emotional regulation in older adults and compared that to young adults and how that relates to stress, cognitive control and mood (Prakash et al, 2015). The authors had 50 older and 50 young adult participates from the Ohio community. The older adults were between the ages 60-80 and the younger adults were from 18-30 who both do not suffer from depression, poor vision, neurological disorders or chronic diseases and are not taking any steroid medication. The authors conducted the experiment by doing interviews for two sessions each a week apart. The purpose of this study was to find out if there is an association between mindfulness, perceived stress, and emotional regulation while adding in potential mediators and comparing the two different ages. Prakash et al., (2015) found that there was not much of a difference between older adults and young adults in most of the areas they tested. The authors also found that the older adults they studied scored less in cognitive ability tasks, like working memory, but scored the same as the young adults in emotional regulation, mindfulness and mood. In other words, young and older adults are equally mindful, can regulate stress and have similar emotional regulation; additionally, these three aspects do not correlate or affect the ability to perform the other. This study relates to the grumpiness stereotype because emotional regulation and stress can correlate to the ability to control mood. Therefore, this study does not support the stereotype because the older adults scored generally the same on the required tasks as the younger adults. While it is important to note this study did not explicitly examine negative moods, testing certain cognitive abilities can still correlate with mood (Prakash, 2015).

The Wilkins et. al. (2006) conducted a study on the relationship between Vitamin D deficiency and low mood, physical performance and cognitive ability in older adults (Wilkins et al., 2006). They studied 80 participants, 40 with Alzheimer disease and 40 non-demented people. The authors of this study conducted a longitudinal study to test memory and aging. They used a number of cognitive functioning assessments like Short Blessed Test, Mini-Mental health state, Clinical Dementia and mood was tested using clinician’s diagnosis and the depression symptoms inventory.  The purpose of this study was to find out if the amount of Vitamin D has a correlation to cognitive abilities. Wilkins et al., (2006) concluded that Vitamin D deficiency was associated with low mood, cognitive functioning and physical performance. In other words, the less Vitamin D, the worse their cognitive abilities will be therefore causing a shift in mood. This supports the stereotype that older adults are grumpy because if they’re not getting a healthy amount of Vitamin D, then it is foreseeable that their mood will worsen over time. It important to add that vitamin D deficiency is common in older adults. Therefore, it is important that older adults receive the healthy diet and lifestyle they need to remain cognitively and physically able (Wilkins et al., 2006).


Overall, the pattern is clear that as adults get older their bodies begin to age and the studies show that mood lowers as well. While it is important to note that these studies only capture a few populations of older adults, the results remain clear and consistent. Depression, negative environments and vitamin D are all strong indicators that the stereotype is true. While they may not always be yelling at everyone to get off their lawn, the stereotype that older adults have a lower mood may be true


Conner, K.O., Carr Copeland, V., Grote, N.K., Koeske, Gary., Rosen, D., Reynolds III, C.F., Brown, C., (2010). Mental health treatment seeking among older adults with depression: The impact of stigma and race. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 18, 531-543. Doi:10.1097

Isaacowitz, D.M., Seligman, M.E.P., (2001). Is Pessimism a risk factor for depressive mood among community-dwelling older adults? The Journal of behavior research and therapy. 39, 255-272.

Prakash, R.S., Hussain, M.A., Schirdam B., (2015). The role of emotion regulation and cognitive control in the association between mindfulness disposition and stress. Journal of American Psychological Association, 30, 160-171. Doi: 10.1037/a0038544 ­­

Wilkins, C.H., Sheline, Y.I, Roe, C.M, Birge, S.J., Morris., J.C., (2006). Vitamin D deficiency is associated with low mood and worse cognitive performance in older adults. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 14, 1032-1040.


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