Dealing with Death in Later Life: Terror Management Perspectives on Aging

As a starting point, older adults were included in traditional TMT paradigms in order to compare older and younger adults’ responses to reminders of mortality. Maxfield et al. (2007) found that older adults reminded of death displayed decreased punitiveness toward violators of mainstream cultural worldviews – standing in direct contrast to younger adults’ increased punitiveness. Perhaps with the many life experiences acquired over 70 or 80 years, people learn more positively-oriented ways of responding to increased awareness of mortality. Interestingly, older adults were not more lenient overall; in the control condition, older adults were significantly more punitive than younger adults, suggesting that the decreased punitiveness is activated by contemplation of mortality, rather than an overall shift toward leniency.

In a follow-up study (Maxfield, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Pepin, & Davis, 2012), participants’ memory, executive functioning, self-reported health, and general psychological well-being were also assessed. Executive functioning (uniquely human cognitive functions, such as planning, reasoning, and self-control) influenced older adults’ responses to death reminders: Greater executive functioning predicted decreased punitiveness following reminders of mortality, whereas lesser executive functioning predicted increased punitiveness. Younger adults’ executive functioning did not affect responses to mortality, and memory, health, and well-being did not affect responses to mortality salience for either age group. These findings suggest that maintenance of higher-order cognitive functioning is important to adaptation to (and perhaps even acceptance of) mortality in later life.

Aside from reducing punitiveness among older adults, recent work suggests that older adults respond to death reminders with increased generativity, the desire to contribute something to future generations (Maxfield et al., 2014). In two studies, older adults displayed increased generative concern following death reminders; younger adults’ generative concern was not impacted. This increased generativity striving among older adults goes beyond simply leaving an egotistic legacy or monument to oneself: Reminders of death increased older adults’ preference for leaving a legacy that would improve the welfare of other over one that would lead them to be remembered. These findings suggest that a pro-social altruistic orientation might be particularly useful way of coping with the approach of one’s own mortality.


A handful of studies regarding age differences in proximal defenses yield mixed results (e.g., Bevan, Maxfield, & Bultmann, in press; Bӧzo, Tunca, & Simsek, 2009; Taubman Ben-Ari & Findler, 2005). The general tenor of the findings seems to be that both younger and older adults responded with increased intention to engage in healthy behaviors immediately following reminders of mortality. It appears that among younger and older adults (but perhaps not middle-aged ones), there is a strong tendency to postpone death by rational means (proximal defenses), such as by engaging in more health-promoting behaviors, even though older adults do not seem to be engaging in the same symbolic (distal) defenses as younger adults. These are tentative findings though, so additional investigation of proximal defenses among persons of differing ages is needed.

In sum, as one ages, it becomes increasingly difficult to view death as an abstract problem for the distant future. The greater proximity to death that comes with advancing age poses a developmental challenge to which some, but not all, older people respond by changing the way they relate to death and adopting a more flexible, tolerant, and socially-oriented approach to their remaining years. The reduced availability of one’s long-standing sources of emotional security creates the impetus for finding new sources of meaning and self-esteem. But making the transition to new ways of coping with death and life requires resources. Thus far, our studies point to executive functioning as a particularly important resource in this regard. This makes good sense, in that adjusting one’s goals and meanings requires considerable flexibility and adaptability. The good news is that many older adults do seem capable of making this transition to a more flexible mode of coping, which appears to play an important role in positive adaptation to the challenges of their later years.

Future directions

Given what we’ve found so far regarding older adults’ responses to reminders of death, it may be that many of them manage their concerns about death in particularly constructive ways that the rest of us could emulate. One next step is to better understand what allows high functioning older people to respond in these pro-social ways. One possibility is that they view death in a more realistic, concrete way that allows them to think about their identification with continuity of life in deeper and less superficial ways.

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