Solving sticky problems gets old

Decision-making as we age can be tricky.

There is the ever-present “Should I go, or should I stay?” related to issues like moving in with your daughter or relocating to a residential setting.

Other decisions include, “Should I attend the evening meeting that requires me to drive home when it’s dark? There are big considerations, such as, “Which of my children would be the best designee for my advance directive.” That last example could be called “a decision about a decision.”

A team of gerontology experts at the University of Nebraska at Omaha researched decision-making in older adults and collated information gained from “written and verbal observations of 156 respondents aged 52 to 94.” Most felt they “handled their daily problems well.” Others “had no decision-making problems” or “the problems experienced were in the past.” Some thought they “had others to take care of decision-making situations for them.”

Respondents found abstract problems more complicated to think about and handle than concrete situations. Now, I’m no expert on the way people think, but I do recognize I’m an abstract problem-solver. My husband would say I “over-think” issues. And he would be correct.

For instance, here’s a decision: “Should I get a dog?” Or stated differently, “Should we get another dog?” The concrete thinker might see it as a “yes” or “no” question, but an abstract thinker/decision-maker would ponder the bigger issue of dogs in general and ruminate about types of dogs and their specific behaviors. Did I say “ruminate?” In my case, I really meant “obsess.”

There were many factors at play in the University of Nebraska study, but one finding indicated “having six choices was difficult.” The respondents were found to manage “one function a day most effectively.” When I have problems to consider, one big decision a day is all I can muster. I do have an approach that works for me. You can decide if it has relevance for you.

I write down a decision to be made, stating it clearly. Then I make a list of the pros and cons and rate the importance of each item. Staying with the earlier question about a second dog, I would list pros like “a playmate for our Lucy” and cons like “much more dog hair on the furniture.”

When I have a full-page list, I rank each item on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the highest score. Using that approach, the playmate concept would be a 10 and the dog-hair issue would be an 8 or 9. It’s still a bit subjective, but in an organized way.

If the list of pros outweighs the cons, and the decision to get a second dog has the nod, I would then offer up an additional question, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen if I (we) got a second dog?

And that’s the point when I involve my husband. He likes his dogs one at a time, which should definitely have been on the con side of my list and ranked as a 10 (at least).

Plus, when it comes to dogs, he always answers that final query about “the worst possible thing” differently than I do.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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