illustration of Lois Bowers

Read recent research on perceptions of wisdom and come away with ideas you can use to change your organization’s culture or programming as well as encourage residents to keep active and contributing in your senior living community, according to leaders at the Mather Institute, which conducted the study.

“It’s important to recognize and appreciate the wealth of experience and insight that residents can contribute,” Catherine O’Brien, PhD, MPH, senior vice president of Mather Institute and community initiatives, and Jennifer Smith, PhD, associate vice president and director of Mather Institute, told me in an email interview. “It could be valuable to provide avenues for residents to share their thoughts and apply their skills within the community if desired, such as leading resident interest groups or planning other events.”

The institute surveyed 745 people aged 55 or more years online in January 2023; 70% were Caucasian, 61% were female, 59% had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 53% reported having incomes of less than $80,000.

The researchers found that 71% of survey respondents said they believed that wisdom increases with age. But the study also found that age in itself is not perceived as guaranteeing wisdom — only 39% of participants said they believed that age and wisdom are strongly related.

O’Brien and Smith said they were surprised by the finding. “When we asked them about the characteristics of a wise person, respondents clearly distinguished between wisdom and intelligence,” they said.

But just how did participants characterize wisdom? More than half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that wise people accept their limitations (80%), are realists (67%), are in control of their lives (58%) or have strong relationships (53%).

Ad what experiences have contributed to participants’ wisdom? The most frequently cited answer was “making mistakes” (64%), followed by interacting with people of different generations (59%), experiencing adversity (57%), helping others or trying new things (each 54%) and raising a family (50%). All were chosen by at least half of participants. 

“Respondents indicated that a variety of experiences contributed to their wisdom, and senior living providers could consider ways to support these wisdom-building experiences. For instance, making mistakes and learning from adversity contributed to the wisdom of most respondents,” O’Brien and Smith said. “Creating a culture that encourages people to try new things and to learn from those experiences may promote the development of wisdom. In addition, respondents indicated that interactions with people of different ages contributed to their wisdom. This is one of many reasons to provide opportunities for intergenerational experiences for residents.”

Mather sought to conduct this research, O’Brien and Smith said, because “in our society, we’re frequently exposed to negative views about aging, but there are many strengths that remain or increase throughout one’s life. Wisdom is one of these strengths.”

The full report is available on the Mather Institute website.

Lois A. Bowers is the editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Read her other columns here. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at Lois_Bowers.