Striving for Realistic Goals in Old Age May Decrease Depression

As people age, they experience a natural decrease in functional abilities. This decline has been linked to increased depression in many adults, mostly due to loss of independence or inability to perform activities. However, a new study suggests that adults who disengage from the goals that become unattainable due to decreased functionality actually experience fewer depressive symptoms than people who continue to pursue unattainable goals. Erin Dunne of Concordia University and lead author of the study, said, “These beneficial effects are likely to occur because goal disengagement can reduce negative mood and the associated health problems by protecting individuals from the experience of repeated failure.” She added that these same adults can sustain the decreased levels of depression by pursuing new, more realistic goals. “Goal reengagement capacities are thought to provide new meaningful goals and have been associated with purpose in life and positive affect,” she said.

To test her theory, Dunne and her colleagues examined the functional abilities, depressive symptoms and goal engagement behaviors of over 100 older adults over the course of six years. They found that as the adults’ functional abilities decreased, their depressive symptoms increased, but only in the adults who could not abandon unrealistic goals. “In particular, six-year increases in depressive symptoms appeared among participants who had poor goal disengagement capacities and experienced heightened levels of functional disability at two-year, four-year, and six-year follow-up, independent of baseline levels,” said the team. “This pattern of results implies that increases in functional disability contributed to subsequently elevated levels of depressive symptoms if individuals were not able to disengage from unattainable goals.” But for those adults who could disengage and set new, more attainable goals, the depressive symptoms decreased. The team hopes these findings will help with treatment options for these individuals. “In particular, we suggest that clinical interventions could target the withdrawal of goal commitment during challenging life circumstances, which could subsequently facilitate an improvement of older adults’ quality of life,” said the researchers.

Dunne, E., Wrosch, C., & Miller, G. E. (2011, May 23). Goal Disengagement, Functional Disability, and Depressive Symptoms in Old Age. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024019

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • myrtle miller

    myrtle miller

    September 30th, 2011 at 10:45 AM

    Setting attainable goals will help you cope with your decrease in strength and level of functioning. When you try to live in a fantasy world where you are able to do everything you did 30 years ago, you’re only going to make yourself feel poorly. Look, the idea shouldn’t be to do as much as you once could; it’s about how much you can possibly do now. Stop living in a fairy tale world and you’ll feel much happier. The trick as to have small wins, what a mean by this is to set easy attainable goals, once you reach these goals you can set another easy goal. The motivation from reaching goals will help you get to where ever you want. For example: If you want to run a mile, set your goal to walk a mile, then once that is reached set it to run a quarter mile and so on.

  • Kel


    September 30th, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    With a dwindling power to do things in many aspects,it only makes sense to lower the bar a little with age.And yes,how we perceive our goals has a lot to do on how we feel about ourselves.And thus the depression!

  • Irene


    September 30th, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    All of us, no matter our age, need to have goals in life. This is what keeps us motivated and keeps us moving forward.

    This is especially true as we get older. We lose sight of some things but it is always good to have something to move toward. I am afraid that we will just give up if we do not have something that propels us and cpels us to keep going.

  • Jessie


    October 1st, 2011 at 5:48 PM

    But keep the goals realistic! You have to know what is going to work for YOU.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.



* Indicates required field.

Therapist   Treatment Center

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog

Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on