How older adults make decisions

As the U.S. population continues to grow older and technology moves ahead at break-neck speeds, older adults are being asked – in many cases required – to make more complex decisions than ever before.

 Should they stay in their homes or invest in a senior living community where care will be available when they need it?  Which prescription drug plan is best?  What course of treatment is best for serious illness?

But are we giving older adults the information they need to make quality decisions? The evidence suggests that the way older adults make decisions differs substantially from the way younger adults do. Research conducted by psychologist Joseph Mikels and economist Kosali Simon, both Human Ecology faculty members, offers practical insights for improving older adults’ decision-making. Their findings are summarized in a paper created by Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development.

For starters, research has shown that emotional functioning and regulation improve with age. Older people report more frequent positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, and they are more likely to focus on, and remember, positive information. When helping older adults make complex decisions, it may be best to encourage them to focus on their feelings as opposed to the specific details. They may not only make better decisions, but also feel more satisfied with their choices.

Studies also show that older adults do not desire or value choice to the same extent that younger adults do. In a series of large-scale surveys, hundreds of adults over 65 and undergraduate students reported how many options they wished to choose from in a variety of domains, from prescription drug plans to ice cream flavors. Older adults desired on average less than half as many options as younger adults did.  When older adults face a decision, it’s better to present them with a reasonable number of options.

“For example, instead of listing all of the available home health care agencies in the area, first present the five or so most popular ones,” the paper suggests. “If the person you are assisting isn’t satisfied with any of them, present an additional few options. By restricting the flow of information in this manner, you will increase the odds of making a high-quality, satisfying decision.”


  1. I think many of the studies’ results are just common sense. The older we are, the more we think things through rather than making a decision based on emotions. Secondly, referring to the older adults not valuing choices to the extent younger people do, this probably has to do with the fact they didn’t have the choices when they were younger like we do today. So more choices is not something they are used to or comfortable with, in general. Just my opinion.

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