Community size and perception of older adults in the Cook Islands
Community size and perception of older adults in the Cook Islands
Tomasz FrackowiakID 0 1
Anna Oleszkiewicz 0 1
Corinna E. L o?ckenhoff 1
Agnieszka Sorokowska 0 1
Piotr Sorokowski 0 1
0 Institute of Psychology, University of Wroclaw, Wroclaw, Poland, 2 Interdisciplinary Center ?Smell & Taste?, Department of Otorhinolaryngology, TU Dresden , Dresden, Germany , 3 Department of Human Development, Cornell University , Ithaca, NY , United States of America, 4 Department of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine, TU Dresden , Dresden , Germany
1 Editor: Giovanni Ottoboni, University of Bologna , ITALY
Attitudes towards aging are often negative, a phenomenon known as ageism. However, personal contact with older adults and intergenerational exchange in the context of close families may mitigate such negative tendencies. So far, these effects have been studied in Western and industrialized contexts. The present study extended this work to the Cook Islands archipelago, a group of islands in the South Pacific characterized by low levels of industrialization and relative isolation from foreign influences. We tested the hypothesis that attitudes toward aging in the Cook Islands would be more positive than in the world at large, and that, within the archipelago, attitudes towards aging would be more positive in smaller, less industrialized communities with closer family ties. Participants (n = 70), were recruited from three islands varying in community size and strength of the family ties among inhabitants. They rated their aging attitudes on four dimensions. Contrary to our hypotheses, attitudes in the Cook Islands did not differ from those reported in industrialized nations and did not vary significantly across islands, even after controlling for personal contact to older adults. Potential limitations and implications for future research are discussed.
Human population aging was first recognized as a serious demographic challenge over sixty
years ago [
], but it was primarily discussed as a problem of industrialized countries. In
recent years, developing countries are beginning to face this challenge as well  necessitating
a better understanding of the factors that govern the perception and treatment of older adults
across the world [
]. Of particular interest are the role of community characteristics and
family ties that may in turn affect access to potential caregivers [
Unfortunately, interactions with older adults may be negatively affected by ageism [
tendency to perceive and treat individuals more negatively because of their age [
other stereotypes, ageism can be mitigated by enhanced personal contact with subjects of
prejudice, a phenomenon known as the contact hypothesis [
]. Personal contact with old people
decreases negative attitudes [
] through more realistic perceptions and reduced anxiety [
]. This effect is especially visible in children interacting with older people [
study design, data collection and analysis, decision
to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
While the contact hypothesis operates at the individual level, societal factors may influence
attitudes towards aging as well. Specifically, modernization theory [
] has argued that
increasing industrialization decreases the societal status of older people because it disrupts
traditional extended families and decreases the value of older adults? experience-based
knowledge. In support of this idea, it has been shown that in traditional societies, perception of
elderly people are more positive due to the respect and honor given to seniors [
modernization, perception of elderly people in less industrialized societies may also be linked
to community size. Members of small communities usually know each other, and?according
to the contact hypothesis?this personal contact may mitigate negative age stereotypes.
So far, such effects have mostly been studied in Western and industrialized contexts (for a
meta-analysis see North, Fiske [
]) with only a few studies comparing traditional and
industrialized societies (e.g., [
]). The present study extends this work to the Cook Islands
archipelago, a group of islands in the South Pacific characterized by low levels of industrialization and
relative isolation from foreign markets [
We gathered data from three islands varying in community size, contact to the outside
world, and exposure to mainstream media. We performed both cross-cultural comparisons,
testing the hypothesis that attitudes toward aging in the Cook Islands would be more positive
than in industrialized countries around the world and within-culture comparisons, testing the
hypothesis that?within the archipelago?attitudes towards aging would be more positive in
smaller, less industrialized communities characterized by closer family ties, greater personal
acquaintance with older adults, and lower exposure to mainstream media. Following prior
research (e.g., [
]) the latter analyses also controlled for contact to older adults.
Materials and methods
Participants consisted of 70 inhabitants of three islands of the Cook Islands archipelago:
Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Palmerston (for participant characteristics, see Table 1).
Rarotonga, with 13,000 inhabitants, is the biggest island of the Cook Islands where Avarua,
the capital, is located. It is the major tourist destination within the archipelago and home of
pDiff = p-value testing for significant differences across islands, BF01 = Bayes Factor in support of the null Hypothesis; standard deviations for continuous measures are
shown in parentheses
2 / 6
the international airport as well as numerous hotels and other infrastructure [
]. The study
was conducted in Avarua at the Sunday market. North from Rarotonga lies Aitutaki, an island
with a population of approximately 2,000 people. Aitutaki is the second most populated island
of the Cook Islands. The study was conducted in the main village of Aitutaki?Arutanga.
Finally, Palmerston is a tiny atoll located 500 km north-west from Rarotonga and is inhabited
by approximately 60 people who rarely have contact with tourists or other inhabitants of the
Cook Islands archipelago, thus it meets the requirement of a small, isolated community. The
present inhabitants of Palmerston comprise three families of the same surname: Masters.
There are few scientific works documenting the history of Palmerston, but some additional
information can be found in Pryor [
] and Hendery [
Table 1 shows demographic characteristics for each sample. All data are available at https://
figshare.com/articles/cook_islands_PLOS_xlsx/8256503. As seen in the last column of the
table, the samples from the different islands had similar gender and age distributions.
However, the number of older acquaintances varied across islands such that people living in smaller
communities reported knowing fewer older adults.
The study was approved by Cooks Islands National Research Committee, the ethical board of
the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wroclaw, and Cornell University Institutional
Review Board. Data was collected during individual meetings (after obtaining informed
consent from the respondents) conducted by the researchers in English (official language at the
Cook Islands, commonly known by the inhabitants). Questions were adapted from
Sorokowski et al. [
] and Lo?ckenhoff et al. [
] and assessed aging attitudes with regard to life
satisfaction, performance of daily tasks, family authority, and wisdom. For each of these
characteristics, participants were asked to indicate whether life satisfaction, performance of
daily tasks, family authority and wisdom increased (coded as 1 for the purpose of further
statistical analyses), remained stable (coded as 0) or decreased (coded as -1) in older adults. Lower
scores indicate perceptions of age-related decrements in functioning or status and thus more
negative aging attitude. Participants also reported how many older people they knew
personally and researchers recorded the respondents? age and gender.
Initial analyses examined the general direction of aging attitudes in our sample. We performed
a repeated-measures general linear model (GLM) with four aspects of aging included as a
within subject factors (life satisfaction vs performance of daily tasks vs family authority vs
wisdom). We found that aging attitudes differed across characteristics, F(3, 207) = 13.77, p <
.001, partial eta-squared = .17. Within-subjects contrasts indicated that, consistent with the
prior literature [
], Cook islanders reported more negative attitudes for age-related changes
in daily tasks and life satisfaction than for changes in family authority and wisdom (all ps <
.001). Given the low sample size, we conducted an analogous, additional Bayesian analysis
which confirmed that the alternative hypothesis (i.e., there are differences between four aspects
of aging attitudes) is far more likely than the null hypothesis, BF10 = 2.498 106. Negative
attitudes for age-related changes in life satisfaction were far more likely to be observed as
compared to authority (BF10 = 70.9) and wisdom (BF10 = 753.8). Further, negative attitudes for
age-related changes in performance were more likely to be observed as compared to changes
in authority (BF10 = 171.9) and wisdom (BF10 = 12513.2).
For the purpose of cross-cultural comparisons, the aging attitude scores for the combined
Cook Island sample were compared to the average scores derived from 26 industrialized
3 / 6
cultures across the world ([
]; for this comparison, the original 5-point scores were
transformed to a 3-point scale). One-sample t-Tests (Bonferroni corrected) indicated that Cook
Islanders did not differ in aging attitudes relative to industrialized societies for daily tasks
(-0.38 in Lo?ckenhoff et al. [
] vs. -0.24 in the present sample; t(69) = 1.46, p = .15), life
satisfaction (-0.03 vs. -0.16; t(69) = 1.29, p = .2), family authority (0.21 vs. 0.33; t(69) = -1.31, p =
.19), and wisdom (0.52 vs. 0.41; t(69) = 1.41, p = .16). The aforementioned statistics indicate a
lack of discrepancies between previously published cross-cultural data and currently presented
evidence from the Cook Islands.
For within-culture comparisons, we computed further GLMs with island as the
independent variable, and the aging attitude scores for each of the four aspects of aging as dependent
variables. Again, all comparisons between the islands were further verified with the use of
Bayesian analyses. As seen in Table 1, there was a trend indicating that attitudes about life
satisfaction in Palmerston were more positive than in the two other communities, F(2, 70) = 2.82,
partial eta-squared = .08, p = .07 (BF01 = 1.04; inconclusive result). However, this trend was no
longer visible after controlling for differences in the number of older acquaintances across
islands, F(2, 70) = 1.85, partial eta-squared = .05, p = .17 (BF01 = 1.64; inconclusive result).
Older people were perceived similarly across the three Islands with respect to authority,
wisdom and daily task (all ps > .38; all BF01 >3.77; a lack of difference was at least 3.77 more likely
than differences between islands).
The present study adds to the literature by providing a better understanding of aging attitudes
in the Cook Islands, a low-industrialized and relatively isolated society. To the best of our
knowledge, the present data are the first to provide quantitative data on views of aging within
this community. In general, aging attitudes in the Cook Island archipelago were very similar to
those observed in more industrialized societies across the world. Consistent with prior findings
], Cook Islanders had more negative aging attitudes about changes in everyday tasks and
life satisfaction than about changes in family authority and wisdom. Further, the numerical
scores for each aspect of age-related change that we observed in the Cook Islands did not differ
significantly from those observed in 26 industrialized countries [
]. Thus, the present data
add to existing evidence suggesting that some aspects of aging attitudes are fairly universal.
Data did not support our prediction that aging attitudes would be more positive within this
developing and fairly isolated community.
We also examined variations in aging attitudes across islands. Only one of the
characteristics?life satisfaction?showed a trend in the predicted direction such that residents from the
small and isolated Palmerston tended to have more positive views of life-satisfaction in later
life than inhabitants of the two larger islands. However, after controlling for variations in
contact to older adults, this trend was no longer visible.
Although the present data allow a first glimpse of aging attitudes in the Cook Islands, further
research is needed to address a variety of limitations and open questions. First, it needs to be
noted that the assumptions of the current study which required our hypotheses to be tested in a
small, isolated community made it very difficult to recruit large groups of participants. Our
exploratory study employed a relatively modest sample, and future studies, especially those
focused on complex hypotheses, should recruit larger sample sizes from a wider range of islands
within the archipelago. This would allow researchers to systematically disentangle the effects of
community size, contact with older adults, and relative geographic isolation. In particular, the
contact hypothesis [
] which proposes that personal acquaintance with older adults is
associated with more positive aging attitudes would require a more refined assessment within the
4 / 6
Cook Island setting. Inhabitants of the Cook Islands are closely related, especially in Palmerston,
where all islanders have common ancestors [
]. Members of such close-knit communities may
know a smaller number of older adults, but the contacts with the elders they know are more
likely to be intense and personal resulting, in an in-group positive bias [
]. Thus future
studies should not only assess how many older adults are known, but also capture the frequency
and emotional valence of such contacts. Further research is also needed to explore the potential
role of media exposure and track the type of media (e.g., Internet, TV, newsprint) and the
frequency with which they are consumed to explore their relative influence on aging attitudes.
Finally, future studies should expand the aspects of aging attitudes that are being considered
and employ a range of assessment approaches. To allow for comparisons with prior work [
] the present study focused on aging expectations for a limited set of relevant domains. Future
work should extend this scope to include emotional responses as well as behavioral intentions
towards the elderly and supplement quantitative approaches with qualitative accounts.
Conceptualization: Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Corinna E. Lo?ckenhoff,
Data curation: Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Corinna E. Lo?ckenhoff, Agnieszka
Formal analysis: Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Corinna E. Lo?ckenhoff, Agnieszka
Agnieszka Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski.
Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski.
Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski.
Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski.
Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski.
Agnieszka Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski. kowska, Piotr Sorokowski.
Agnieszka Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski.
Investigation: Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Corinna E. Lo?ckenhoff, Agnieszka
Methodology: Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Corinna E. Lo?ckenhoff, Agnieszka
Project administration: Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Corinna E. Lo?ckenhoff,
Resources: Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Corinna E. Lo?ckenhoff, Agnieszka
SoroWriting ? original draft: Tomasz Frackowiak, Anna Oleszkiewicz, Corinna E. Lo?ckenhoff,
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