Role Occupancy, Physical Health and the Diminishment of the Sense of Mattering in Late Life

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Mattering is an important but understudied part of the self-concept. Morris Rosenberg and Claire McCullough (1981) suggested that older adults feel they matter less than middle-aged adults and this discrepancy may in part be explained by a lack of role occupancies such as paid work, and a devaluation of the old in society at large. This dissertation examines sense of mattering in older adults and two mechanisms that may explain the decline of the self-concept in later life - fewer role occupancies and poorer physical health. It examines whether these processes differ for men versus women and for African-Americans versus whites. The study employs the first wave (2001) of data from the Aging, Stress and Health (ASH) Study, which includes over 1100 white and African-American adults over age 65 living in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

Results indicate that there is a negative relationship between age and both dependence mattering and importance mattering and that it is in part explained by role occupancies as well as physical health status. Compared to informal ties, work and volunteer roles (productive or formal roles), are more important in explaining the relationship between age and mattering. Additionally, the total number of roles held is significantly and positively related to dependence and importance mattering.

How roles mediate the relationship between age and dependence mattering depends on race and gender. The work role significantly mediates the age/mattering relationship for whites, but not for African-Americans. For African-Americans, the volunteer role mediates the relationship between age and dependence mattering, but this is not the case for whites. Also, self-rated health mediates the age-dependence mattering relationship for whites but not African-Americans. These findings point to the need to employ multiple mattering measures in analyses of older adults as well to study diverse samples; results differ depending on the outcome variable and group examined. Mattering is critical to the comprehensive study of the self-concept in later phases of the life course, as it is sensitive to social roles and physical health both of which are locations for key changes occurring during late life.