From suffering to caring: a model of differences among older adults in levels of compassion

Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2015 Feb;30(2):185-91. doi: 10.1002/gps.4123. Epub 2014 Apr 15.


Objective: Compassion is an important contributor to pro-social behavior and maintenance of interpersonal relationships, yet little is known about what factors influence compassion in late life. The aim of this study was to test theories about how past and current stressors and emotional functioning, resilience, and demographic indicators of life experiences are related to compassion among older adults.

Methods: One thousand and six older adults (50-99 years) completed a comprehensive survey including self-report measures of compassion, resilience, past and present stress, and emotional functioning (i.e., stressful life events, perceived stress, and current and prior depression and anxiety), and demographic information. The sample was randomly split, and exploratory and confirmatory regression analyses were conducted testing hypothesized relationships with compassion.

Results: Exploratory stepwise regression analysis (n = 650) indicated that participants who reported higher levels of compassion were more likely to be female, not currently in a married/married-like relationship, reported higher resilience levels, and had experienced more significant life events. Age, income level, past and current mental distress, and interactions between resilience and other predictors were not significantly related to compassion. The associations between greater self-reported compassion and being female, having greater resilience, and having experienced more significant life events were supported by a confirmatory stepwise regression analysis (n = 356).

Conclusions: Older women report more compassion than older men. Resilience and significant life events, independently, also appear to facilitate a desire to help others, while current stress and past and present emotional functioning are less relevant. Specificity of findings to older adults is not yet known.

Keywords: aging; anxiety; depression; life events/stress; resilience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Marital Status
  • Middle Aged
  • Regression Analysis
  • Resilience, Psychological*
  • Sex Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors