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

Returning to the wisdom of Oliver Wendell Holmes, recall his statement that “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” Future research concerning how older adults cope with their mortality will need to identify the strategies or protective factors they are able to use to ward off the negative defensiveness that younger adults typically exhibit in response to increased awareness of death. To date, it is clear that executive functioning is one of those protective factors related to positively oriented responses, but certainly other variables come in to play. The aging process can entail emotionally and physically painful processes, and research so far has not addressed how the number and intensity of emotional losses or number and intensity of chronic health conditions impact older adults’ responses to mortality salience. We have also considered the possibility that there may fates worse than death – perhaps living with a health condition severely limiting your physical mobility or cognitive ability would be more aversive than death. Indeed, research concerning “dementia worry” suggests that developing cognitive impairment is a significant area of concern for middle-aged and older adults (e.g., Kessler, Bowen, Baer, Froelich, & Wahl, 2012). Memory loss may represent an existential anxiety regarding the death of self, rather than physical death – indeed, the person built up over six, seven, or eight decades may seem to be fading away with the loss of one’s personal memories. It may be that physical death becomes less of a core fear for older adults as the prospect of a life that is not worth living increases.

Going forward, we see two key general directions for new research and consideration of real world applications. First, by identifying ways in which older adults develop more positively oriented responses to thoughts of death, perhaps this could provide ways that other age groups could adopt strategies to decrease their own defensiveness. Second, by understanding the existential fears older adults may experience aside from death, perhaps clinicians can address these fears (e.g., memory, relationship losses) more directly in an effort to ameliorate the inevitable pains associated with aging.


Distal defenses. They address thoughts of death indirectly by protecting the cultural worldview and bolstering self-esteem. Examples include defending the cultural worldview via increasingly positive evaluation of those who support and increasingly negative evaluation of those who violate one’s cultural worldview.
Proximal defenses. They address thoughts of death directly by engaging in behaviors aimed at denying/delaying death. Examples include denial of vulnerability to death and increased intention to engage in healthy behaviors which may forestall death.
Mortality salience. It is a state of increased accessibility of death-related thoughts, which is typically achieved in studies by asking people questions about their own mortality, showing videos depicting fatalities, or interviewing them near a funeral home.

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