The Handbook of Lifespan Communication

by Jon F. Nussbaum (Volume editor)
©2015 Textbook XII, 460 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 2


The Handbook of Lifespan Communication is the foundational scholarly text that offers readers a state of the art view of the varied and rich areas of lifespan communication research. The fundamental assumptions of lifespan communication are that the very nature of human communication is developmental, and, to truly understand communication, change across time must be incorporated into existing theory and research. Beginning with chapters on lifespan communication theory and methodologies, chapters are then organized into the various phases of life: early childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, middle adulthood, and older adulthood. Top scholars across several disciplines have contributed to chapters within their domains of expertise, highlighting significant horizons that will guide researchers for years to come.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Series Editor’s Preface
  • Introduction
  • References
  • Part One: Theory and Methods in Lifespan Communication
  • Chapter One: Lifespan Communication Theory
  • Lifespan Principles
  • Development Can Occur at All Ages
  • Change Across the Lifespan Is Nonlinear and Multidimensional
  • Age Constrains but Doesn’t Control Development
  • Individual Differences Coexist with Differences in Age-Based Averages
  • Aging Is an Ambiguous Word
  • Communication Principles
  • Broad Approaches Linking Communication and Aging
  • Aging Influences Communication (Communication as DV)
  • Communication Influences Aging (Communication as IV)
  • Communication as Mediator
  • Communication as Moderator
  • An Exemplar: Communication Accommodation Theory
  • Categorization
  • Stereotyping and Attitudes
  • Levels of Analysis
  • Lifespan Changes
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter Two: Lifespan Communication Methodology
  • Qualitative Approaches to Lifespan Research
  • Calendar and Diary Methods
  • Field Observations and Archives
  • Narrative and Interview
  • Quantitative Approaches to Lifespan Research
  • Study Designs: Cross-Sectional Versus Longitudinal
  • Statistical Methods to Assess Change
  • Mixed Methods and “Catch-Up” Approaches
  • Future Research Directions and Concluding Thoughts
  • References
  • Note
  • Part Two: Early Childhood Communication
  • Chapter Three: Communication Development: Distributed Across People, Resources, and Time
  • Communication is Distributed Across People
  • Communication is Distributed Across Resources
  • Birth to 9 months
  • 9 to 12 months
  • 12 to 24 months
  • 24 to 36 months
  • 3 to 5 years
  • Communication is Distributed Across Time
  • Future Directions in Communication Development
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Parent-Infant Communication
  • Conceptual, Cognitive, and Perceptual Capabilities in Infants
  • Vision
  • Vocal Stimuli
  • Bodily Control
  • Facial Expressions
  • Adult-Infant Interactions
  • Mothers and Infant Communication: Infant Elicited Social Behaviors and Attunement
  • Attachment Theory
  • Bowlby and Ainsworth
  • Maternal Sensitivity in Attachment
  • The Consequences of Attachment: Individual and Relational Effects
  • Correlates of Maternal Sensitivity and Attachment Security
  • Communication Between Parents and Young Children
  • Peers as Socializing Agents
  • Parents as Socializing Agents
  • Directions for Future Research
  • References
  • Notes
  • Part Three: Childhood Communication
  • Chapter Five: Media Use and Effects in Childhood
  • Developmental Patterns in Media Use and Media Preferences
  • Infants and Toddlers
  • Early Childhood
  • Middle Childhood
  • Theories of Media Effects During Childhood
  • Social Cognitive Theory
  • Capacity Model
  • Differential Susceptibility to Media Effects Model
  • Media Effects Across Childhood
  • Negative Effects
  • Positive Effects
  • Conclusion
  • Future Directions in Media and Children’s Research
  • References
  • Chapter Six: Children's Peer Relationships Outside the Family
  • Typically Developing Children’s Peer Relationships
  • Bullying and Peer Victimization
  • Children with Developmental Disabilities
  • Future Research Directions in Children’s Peer Relationships Outside the Family
  • References
  • Chapter Seven: Communication and Learning
  • Learning and Education as Lifespan Processes
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Socialization: The Foundation for a Lifetime of Learning
  • Theorizing About Communication and Learning from a Developmental Perspective
  • Piaget’s Developmental Theory
  • Expectancy Learning/Learned Helplessness
  • Approach/Avoidance Theory
  • Social Cognitive Theory
  • Rhetorical/Relational Goal Theory
  • Overview of the Role of Communication Variables in Learning
  • Student Communication
  • Instructor Communication
  • Instructor-Student Interaction
  • Classroom Variables
  • Learning-Related Technology
  • Future Research Directions in Communication and Learning
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Part Four: Adolescent Communication
  • Chapter Eight: The Digital Bridge into Adulthood: Media Uses and Effects in Adolescence
  • Theoretical Models of Media Effects
  • Violence and Aggression
  • Sexual Health
  • Body Image and Eating Disorders
  • Risky Substances
  • Future Research Directions in Adolescent Media Uses and Effects
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Nine: Adolescent Identity and Substance Use Prevention
  • Conceptualizing Identity and Substance Use: The Communication Theory of Identity
  • Personal Layer
  • Relational Layer
  • Enacted Layer
  • Communal Layer
  • Interpenetration
  • Adolescent Identity and Drug Use Prevention
  • Cultural Identities and Interventions
  • Approaches to Culturally Based Interventions
  • Methods of Cultural Grounding
  • Culturally Based Substance Use Prevention Interventions
  • Keepin’ It Real: A Case-Study in Identity-Based Substance Use Prevention
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: Adolescent Online Friendship and Peer Relationships
  • New Technologies, Friendship-Peer Relationships, and Adolescents
  • Characteristics of Online Communication
  • Importance of Friendship for Adolescents
  • Adolescents and Online Romantic Relationships
  • Adolescent Friendship-Peer Relationships and Online Social Support
  • Negative Aspects of Online Adolescent Peer Interactions: The Rise of Cyberbullying Adolescence and Aggression
  • Future Research Directions in Adolescent Online Relationships
  • References
  • Part Five: Emerging Adulthood Communication
  • Chapter Eleven: Emerging Adults in College: Communication, Friendships, and Risky Sexual Behaviors
  • Emerging Adulthood
  • Overview of Emerging Adulthood
  • Friendships and Sex Talk in Emerging Adulthood
  • Sexual Risk, Behaviors, and Consequences
  • Sexual Behaviors
  • Future Research: Intervention
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Twelve: Commitment and Marriage
  • Commitment in Emerging Adulthood
  • Communication and Commitment
  • Relational Maintenance Behaviors
  • Relational Uncertainty
  • Conflict, Aggression, and Violence
  • Future Directions
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Thirteen: Communication and Workplace Socialization: A Lifespan Examination of the Work-Life Interface
  • Early Work-Life Interface
  • Children and Work Habits
  • The Family Role in Career Aspirations
  • The Role of Educational Institutions and Peers in Work/Career Attitudes
  • The Socializing Effect of Media
  • Summary
  • Encounter
  • Long-Term Work-Life Issues
  • The Cohort Effect
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Summary
  • Exit From Work
  • Voluntary Exit
  • Involuntary Exit
  • Future Research on Work-Life Interface
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter Fourteen: Friend Me, Poke Me, Then Comfort Me: An Exploration of Supportive Communication in Online Social Networking Sites
  • Social Support
  • Social Support and Social Networks
  • CMC and Social Support
  • Seeking Social Support in CMC
  • Providing Social Support in CMC
  • Receiving and Evaluating Social Support in CMC
  • Future Research Directions for Online Supportive Communication within Social Networking Sites
  • Concluding Thoughts
  • References
  • Part Six: Middle Adulthood Communication
  • Chapter Fifteen: Sandwich Relationships: Intergenerational Communication
  • Middle Adulthood as the “Sandwich Generation”
  • Parent-Child Communication in Middle Adulthood: Middle-Aged Adults as Parents
  • Parental Involvement in Middle Adulthood
  • Parent-Child Communication in Middle Adulthood: Middle-Aged Adults as Adult Children
  • Parental Health and Adult Child–Older Parent Relationships
  • Communication and Multigenerational Interdependence
  • Conclusion and Directions for Future Research
  • References
  • Note
  • Chapter Sixteen: Communicating in Professional Life: The Nature and Evolution of Superior-Subordinate Interactions
  • Theoretical Perspectives of Value in Understanding Superior-Subordinate Interactions in Organizations
  • The Personality Perspective
  • The Stylistic Perspective
  • The Motivational Perspective
  • The Exchange Perspective
  • The Transformational Perspective
  • The Authentic Perspective
  • Directions for Future Research
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Seventeen: Spouse and Parent: Television Images of Major Roles of Adulthood
  • The Situation Comedy
  • Variations on a Theme
  • Reality Television
  • Fact and Fiction
  • Future Directions in Research on Spouse and Parenting Roles
  • References
  • Part Seven: Older Adulthood Communication
  • Chapter Eighteen: Media Use and Effects in Older Adulthood
  • Adults and Television
  • Older Adults and Television
  • Television Content Preferences and Older Adults
  • Adults, Older Adults, and Radio Use
  • Adults, Older Adults, and Books
  • Adults, Older Adults, and Newspapers
  • Adults, Older Adults, and Magazines
  • Adults, Older Adults, and Internet Use
  • TV Portrayals of Older Adults
  • Older Adults in Advertising
  • Print Portrayals of Older Adults
  • Conclusion
  • Media Use and Effects in Older Adulthood: Future Research Directions
  • References
  • Chapter Nineteen: The Socially and Sexually Active Later-Life Family Member
  • Later-Life Dating
  • Online Dating Among Later-Life Adults
  • Relationship Termination Among Romantic Later-Life Relationships
  • Later-Life Sexual Activity
  • Family Issues with Older Adults
  • Conclusion
  • Future Research Directions
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty: Health Care Interactions in Older Adulthood
  • Interacting with Providers and the Health Care System: The Older Adult Patient
  • Managing Multiple Providers, Settings, and Organizations
  • Interpersonal Communication Dynamics Among Providers and Older Adult Patients
  • Aging Losses, Ageist Stereotypes, and Paternalism
  • Narrative Communication and Disclosure
  • Presence of a Companion
  • Health Care Interaction Among Older Patients and Their Loved Ones
  • Everyday Health Interactions, Care Transitions, and Social Support
  • Health Care Decision Making
  • Caregiving Communication
  • Conclusion
  • Future Research Directions in Health Care Interactions in Older Adulthood
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-One: End-of-Life Interactions
  • Conceptual Wood-Clearing: A Definition of Death
  • Ages and Ways of Dying
  • Psychological Processes of Death and Dying
  • End-of-Life Communication
  • Communicating About the End of Life
  • Communication At the End-of-Life
  • Psychological and Social Consequences of Communicating at the End of Life
  • The Role of Communication in Caring for the Dying
  • Epilogue: Toward a Communicative Model of Empowerment
  • References
  • About the Editors and Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index


Lifespan Communication

Children, Families, and Aging


The Handbook of Lifespan Communication represents a signficant milestone in the history of the development of ideas about communication. Milestones, intended to mark distances along thoroughfares, also highlight important vistas along the way. Decades ago, the Editor of this volume, Professor Jon Nussbaum, regarded as the father of lifespan communicaton, offered the communication discipline the most expansive view of communication possible: the study of communication across the entire human lifespan. Since then, Professor Nussbaum and a host of colleagues have amassed an important body of knowledge under the auspices of lifespan communication that features an extensive focus on communication in later life. In other parts of the communication field, communciation scholars who study families, for example, have also been developing bodies of knowledge (mostly focused on young adults), alongside of those studying communication in relationships, groups, and orgnizations as well as in public and mass-mediated contexts. In fact, scholars representing at least 57 different divisions, sections, and caucuses of the National Communication Association (www.natcom.org) have all been been working to advance the field of communication.

Inspired in part by Professor Nussbaum’s work, this book series invites all communication scholars to view communication through a panoramic lens, from first words to final conversations—a comprehensive communication vista that brings children, adolescents, adults, and those in later life as well as lifespan groups such as the family into focus. By viewing communciation panoramically it ← xi | xii → is also my hope that communication scholars and educators will incorporate into their work the widely accepted idea that communication develops, that is, it has a starting point and a developmental arc, changing as we change over time. And further, that developmental communication arcs are historically contextualized. As infants we begin our communication education in unique historical contexts that shape our early communication learning as well as the foundations of our communication values. Children born in 2014, for example, will begin their communication learning in a time that can be thought of as a golden age of digital media, where society is attempting to manage a rapid influx of a dizzying array of new communciation technologies into everyday life. Of course the parents of these children—who could have been born anytime between the 1960s to the late 1990s—have experienced vastly different developmental communication arcs, but yet must span the generations and pass along their communciation knowledge and values as well as teach their children how to communicate effectivively within the current historical context, if they are to be successful later in life as adults. Historically contextualized lifespan thinking also raises important new questions, such as what is to be passed along from one generation to the next as “timeless” communciation knowledge and practices, or in contemporary digital parlance, what becomes memetic, that is, analogous to genetic information, what survives to become the communication inheritance of future generations.

It is my hope that the Handbook of Lifespan Communication and all of the books published in the Lifespan Communication: Children, Families, and Aging series will offer the communication field new understandings and deeper appreciation of the complexities of all forms of communciation as it develops across the lifespan as well as raise important questions about communication for current and future generations to study.

—Thomas J. Socha


← xii | 1 → Introduction


The lifespan communication perspective evolved from the fundamental notion that a true understanding of human communication can only be realized by investigating communication throughout the entire lifespan. Communication scholars began to adopt a lifespan perspective that recognizes the dynamic and evolving nature of communication within their theories and methodologies during the last few decades of the 20th century. Termed “developmental” or “lifespan” communication, this approach mirrors the lifespan perspective movements within the sister disciplines of psychology and sociology, which focus on the study of behavioral change across time. Communication scholars publically showed their interest in a lifespan perspective by organizing a caucus on communication and aging during the 1979 National Communication Association convention (Nussbaum & Friedrich, 2005). Just over 10 years later, notable Communication scholars including Nikolas and Justine Coupland, Howard Giles, John Wiemann, Gary Kreps, Mary Ann Fitzpatrick, Lynne Webb, Mark Knapp, Jon Nussbaum, and numerous others responded to this surge of interest in a lifespan communication perspective with a summer conference, a Fulbright International Colloquium, and several books and articles. These not only showcased a developmental approach to communication scholarship but also illuminated the need to appreciate more fully the communication changes that occur as a function of a developmental process over the entirety of the lifespan (Nussbaum et al., 2002; Nussbaum & Friedrich, 2005). It should be noted that mass communication scholars have investigated the usage and effects of media ← 1 | 2 → consumption by children, adolescents, and older adults beginning in the 1950s. To date, developmental communication research—with interdisciplinary studies in familial relationships, media effects, entertainment, education, and health—have produced a substantial amount of knowledge at the individual, relational, and societal levels addressing communication changes over time.

At the present time, the lifespan communication perspective has become a significant and impactful contributor to the knowledge base within communication scholarship. The purpose of this Handbook is to highlight the breadth and depth of the exceptional scholarship that has been produced over the past few decades within the general domain of lifespan communication and to point each of us to future discoveries within lifespan communication.

My (Jon Nussbaum) interest in investigating communication from a lifespan perspective began in the early 1970s as a developmental psychology major at Marquette University. At that time, studying developmental psychology meant studying children. It can be stated without any hesitation that the dominant thinking of the time was that all significant development within humans occurred within the first 12 years of life. Searching for developmental change after childhood was often looked upon as a waste of time. I began my graduate career within the psychology department at West Virginia University (WVU) in 1976 within the newly formed lifespan developmental psychology emphasis. Morgantown was the unlikely epicenter of lifespan developmental psychology with a number of the most respected scholars (e.g., Paul Baltes, K. Warner Schaie, Hayne Reese, and John Nesselroade) spending some of their academic careers supervising numerous lifespan developmental gatherings and producing many of the foundational lifespan developmental theoretical and methodological articles and edited books. Ironically, during my first year at WVU, I was assigned to a research project investigating 5- and 6-year-old children who had experienced the federally funded Head Start program. I quickly realized that I was not meant to study children and began my scholarly interest in studying individuals at different points within the lifespan. I met and began studying the communication processes of older individuals within the Department of Speech Communication at WVU before moving to Purdue University to earn my doctorate. While at Purdue, I was fortunate to study and serve as a research assistant under the direction of Victor Cicirelli within the Department of Psychological Sciences and with Mark Knapp, Bob Norton, Don Ellis, and others within the Department of Communication. My dissertation focused on the interactive behavior of older adults living within three environments (home, a retirement center, and a nursing home). My study predicted communicative behavior and life satisfaction as a function of living environment with older adulthood. The dissertation was solidly grounded within the theory and methodology of the lifespan perspective and has ultimately shaped my scholarship for over 35 years.

I edited my first book focusing on the lifespan communication perspective, Lifespan Communication: Normative Processes, in 1989. Since that time, the lifespan ← 2 | 3 → communication perspective has evolved and grown within the discipline of communication and now is a healthy component of numerous undergraduate and graduate curricula. Recently, the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts within Old Dominion University has created the first graduate degree program offering an advanced degree in lifespan and digital communication. This Handbook is meant to reflect this growth and presents numerous important scholarly contributions written by distinguished scholars.

I have organized the Handbook into separate life stages with the first two chapters dedicated to lifespan communication theory and lifespan communication methodology. A major limitation of lifespan communication research is the lack of large, funded, longitudinal investigations of how our interpersonal, family, health, or media-related communication behaviors change over the course of the lifespan. Numerous psychological, sociological, and health-related investigations throughout the technologically advanced world have utilized longitudinal methodologies to investigate various human activities for the past 60 or 70 years. While at times these longitudinal investigations have collected data on some very simple notions of frequency of interaction or on interactive networks, high-quality, longitudinal data related to communication change across the lifespan are not available. Thus, at this point I feel the life stage organization of this initial issue of the Handbook is optimal to capture and to imitate the flow of communicative change across the lifespan. The life stages (Early Childhood, Childhood, Adolescence, Emerging Adulthood, Middle Adulthood, and Older Adulthood) utilized as organizational parts of this Handbook are generally recognized markers of development by lifespan scholars across the social sciences. Each chapter is also written to stand on its own as a valuable reference source for content contextualized within a specific life stage.

The initial two chapters of the Handbook cover the fundamental dynamics of lifespan communication theory and lifespan communication methodology. Jake Harwood introduces the basic lifespan communication principles, influences, and theoretical perspectives that relate communication to the aging process throughout the lifespan. In addition, he highlights those communicative processes that may mediate or moderate lifespan development in his chapter, “Lifespan Communication Theory.” Maggie Pitts and Mary Lee Hummert review the unique methodologies in their chapter, “Lifespan Communication Methodology,” which captures communication change across the lifespan. Quantitative methodologies that typically include cross-sectional and longitudinal designs as well as qualitative methodologies utilizing field observations, diaries, and interviews are discussed.

Early Childhood is the initial life stage covered within the Handbook. It is fair to note that communication within early childhood has not received the scholarly attention within the communication discipline as compared to our sister disciplines. However, the research both within the communication discipline and within related disciplines has contributed significantly to our understanding of ← 3 | 4 → the process of communication with lifelong implications. Carol Miller and Laura DeThorne, in their chapter, “Communication Development: Distributed Across People, Resources, and Time,” describe the development of intentionality, the growing awareness of the mental states of self and others, and the increasing use of linguistic forms for communication within early childhood. Beth Haslett and Wendy Samter highlight the importance of eye gaze, touch, gesture, turn taking, and the joint focus of attention as infants establish trust, attachment, and relational connections throughout infancy and toddlerhood that serve as the foundation to enable communication in their chapter, “Parent-Infant Communication.”

Part Two of the Handbook focuses on Childhood Communication. Childhood is a time of dramatic communication change and consequence. Children spend significant time interfacing with various forms of media. Children explore their developing social skills outside of their immediate family and children also begin a multi-decade process of formal schooling. Helen Vossen, Jessica Piotrowski, and Patti Valkenburg explore the effects and use of the media within childhood in their chapter, “Media Use and Effects in Childhood.” Robert Duran and Diane Prusank concentrate on the development of pro-social skills within childhood and discuss how these early peer relationships set the stage for childhood friendships that can have both positive and negative consequences for future relationship competencies in their chapter, “Children’s Peer Relationships Outside the Family.” Jennifer Waldeck overviews the aspects of human communication that research indicates impact education in her chapter, “Communication and Learning.” Areas of importance that are addressed include student communication apprehension and quietness, student/teacher interaction patterns, student-student communication, teacher power, and classroom climate and the use of technology and social media.

Adolescent Communication is the focus of Part Four of the Handbook. Adolescents are avid media users who spend significant time listening to music, watching television, playing video games, or producing and sharing digital media via online applications. Piotr Bobkowski and Autumn Shafer, in their chapter, “The Digital Bridge into Adulthood: Media Use and Effects in Adolescence,” utilize the Media Practice model to focus on the intersections between media use and four areas of adolescent well-being: aggressive behavior, sexual identity and behavior, body image and eating disorders, and substance abuse. Adolescence is also a time of emerging identities separate from family that influence decisions to experiment with substance abuse. Michael Hecht, in his chapter, “Adolescent Identity and Substance Use Prevention,” examines how identity research grounded with Communication Identity Theory was used to develop the substance prevention program keepin’ it REAL to influence adolescent health choices and behavior. Kevin Wright and Shawn King focus on adolescent social media use and its impact on relationship development, relational maintenance, computer-mediated social support, and social/psychological outcomes in their chapter, “Adolescent Online Friendship and Peer Relationships.”

← 4 | 5 → Lifespan developmental scholars have uncovered a distinct life stage, emerging adulthood, which has emerged within advanced technological societies because of the changing dynamics of financial realities, the lengthening of educational responsibilities, downturns within job possibilities, and a reframing of the parent-child relationship (Arnett, 2004). Part Five of the Handbook, Emerging Adulthood Communication, begins with the chapter authored by Alyssa Ann Lucas titled “Emerging Adults in College: Communication, Friendships, and Risky Sexual Behaviors.” This chapter unpacks the unique dangers associated with participating in risky sexual behaviors, drug use, and alcohol abuse. Tara McManus focuses her chapter, “Commitment and Marriage,” on the meaning of commitment and marriage for emerging adults and examines the primary ways they express commitment within their romantic relationships and the possible impact on relational satisfaction and marriage. “Communication and Workplace Socialization: A Lifespan Examination of the Work-Life Interface,” written by Michael Kramer and Karen Myers, examines the socialization/assimilation process of joining organizations with a primary focus on individuals in their late teens and early twenties who are entering the workforce for the first time. Part Five of the Handbook concludes with “Friend Me, Poke Me, Then Comfort Me: An Exploration of Supportive Communication in Online Social Networking Sites,” by Andy High. The chapter draws from theories of mediated interpersonal communication and research about online venues to develop a framework to integrate the theoretical and empirical implications of online social networking sites for the provision and reception of social support.

Part Six of the Handbook concentrates on Middle Adulthood Communication. Jordan Soliz and Craig Fowler focus their chapter, “Sandwich Relationships: Intergenerational Communication,” on the communication dynamics that differentiate positive and negative family and relational functioning within multigenerational families. This chapter also discusses custodial grandparents and the nature of the caregiving roles they assume for their grandchildren. Dennis Gouran concentrates on career choice and organizational life for individuals within middle adulthood in his chapter, “Communicating in Professional Life: The Nature and Evolution of Superior-Subordinate Interactions.” He explores superior-subordinate relationships and the impact that interactions within them have on how one negotiates various aspects of his or her professional life, performs, and derives such satisfaction as he or she may experience during the period ranging from middle to late adulthood. “Spouse and Parent: Television Images of Major Roles of Adulthood,” by Diane Prusank, examines the media portrayals of socially approved enactments of spousal and parenting roles, as well as the implications for media audiences of these portrayals.

Older Adulthood Communication is the final part of this Handbook. James Robinson and Kathleen Watters examine the media usage habits of older adults, ← 5 | 6 → the types of content older adults consume, the reason for such consumption with a special focus on health information, and the dominant theories of media effects and implications of media use on older adult audience members in their chapter, “Media Use and Effects in Older Adulthood.” Fran Dickson and Patrick Hughes, in their chapter, “The Socially and Sexually Active Later-Life Family Member,” explore the communication challenges associated with living with older family members, the intergenerational communication between family members, the challenges associated with older family members providing care, the negotiation of new familial roles, and the interesting dynamics of dating in older adulthood for the family. The chapter by Carla Fisher and Mollie Rose Canzona, “Health Care Interactions in Older Adulthood,” reviews the significance and prominence of health care interactions within older adulthood with emphasis on caregiving, future planning, medical decision making, conflict management, geriatric medicine, and social support. The final chapter of the Handbook is co-authored by Howie Giles, Chan Thai, and Abby Prestin, titled “End-of-Life Interactions.” This chapter expresses the firm ideological conviction that the inability to manage death’s challenges seriously impoverishes lifespan adaptations. Topics covered within the chapter include theories of death and dying; palliative care and education; topic avoidance of death; and a proposed set of integrative principles with a focus on processual ways in which death, dying, and communication can be empowering and lead to exciting prospects for future scholarship.

The Handbook highlights several content areas or themes of communication research that differentially impact individuals or relationships at different life stages. Media and social media consumption, usage, and effects as well as various relationship dynamics are common areas of focus throughout many of the life stages. I envision numerous editions of this Handbook that may eventually reframe its organization in which each chapter covers more numerous areas of significance within communication research and traces the development of each particular area throughout the lifespan. This first edition marks the scholarly significance of lifespan communication and offers a solid foundation on which to further our investigations into communication change throughout the entire lifespan.


Arnett, J. J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from late teens through the twenties. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, J. F., & Friedrich, G. (2005). Instructional/developmental communication: Current theory, research and future trends. Journal of Communication, 55, 578–593.

Nussbaum, J. F., Pecchioni, L., Baringer, D., & Kundrat, A. (2002). Lifespan communication. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Communication yearbook 26 (pp. 366–389). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

← 8 | 9 → CHAPTER ONE

Lifespan Communication Theory


We age not only chronologically, but also communicatively. Our chronological progression is marked and shaped by communicative actions (sometimes congratulatory, often commiserative), and our communication styles and preferences change as a result of aging (our own and others’). In this chapter, I examine how existing lifespan theory can be expanded by incorporating a communication focus and the ways in which contemporary communication theory utilizes or would benefit from a lifespan perspective. The scope here is obviously huge, and hence I consider only a subset of the potentially relevant theories. Broader reviews of theory and the empirical literature are available, and interested readers should view those as complementary sources (e.g., Harwood, 2007; Nussbaum, Pecchioni, Baringer, & Kundrat, 2002; Pecchioni, Wright, & Nussbaum, 2005). Other chapters in this handbook also address additional perspectives that are equally interesting and valid. This chapter will focus on the later portion of the lifespan. Most of the general principles could be addressed to lifespan development at any age, but the specifics pertain primarily to older adulthood.

The chapter begins by outlining the broad parameters of a lifespan perspective (derived from multiple sources, notably P. Baltes, 1987), and then delineating specific roles that communication can be seen as playing in social life. Then, I discuss specific theoretical issues in a manner organized by place of communication in the perspective. In closing, I briefly describe how one theoretical perspective (communication accommodation theory: Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991) offers particular promise in addressing multiple areas related to communication and aging.


Development Can Occur at All Ages

Historically, developmental psychologists (among others) were guilty of viewing development as something that happened only during childhood and adolescence. In recent years, both research findings and an ideological shift against ageist assumptions have led to broad acceptance of the notion that development occurs at all ages. People at all ages may experience decline and deficit on certain fronts, but growth is always possible on other fronts. Understanding the resources that we draw on to attain and sustain such growth is a sensible focus for research. Most theory since at least the time of Erikson (1968) acknowledges this. Research on communication processes is also consistent with this assumption, demonstrating that some communicative phenomena remain stable or improve into late adulthood—vocabulary and narrative complexity, for example (Kemper, Rash, Kynette, & Norman, 1990; Pennebaker & Stone, 2003).

Change Across the Lifespan Is Nonlinear and Multidimensional

The most stereotypical accounts of the lifespan express it as an inverted U-shaped progression, with rapid early growth and then a slow (but perhaps accelerating) decline through middle age and into older adulthood. While such accounts are overly simplistic and widely discredited, they do illustrate the nonlinear nature of change through the lifespan. On any given dimension, it is likely that abilities and motivations increase and decrease at different life stages, and that no two dimensions will follow the same trajectory. Things like perceptual processing speed decline at a very steady and constant rate throughout the adult lifespan, verbal ability increases and then levels off or declines slightly very late in life (Hedden & Gabrieli, 2004), and communicative phenomena related to semantic knowledge and wisdom increase throughout the lifespan in the absence of pathological processes (Nussbaum, 2012). Antonucci’s convoy model provides a nice illustration; the model recognizes that our social networks are multidimensional and multifaceted entities that follow us through life, constantly changing, but also serving as a source of stability (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1995). Indeed, the simultaneous experience and interplay of stability and change is perhaps the fundamental dynamic necessary to understand the development of any individual.

Age Constrains but Doesn’t Control Development

Age-related changes in physical and cognitive functioning are described in detail in other sources (e.g., Masoro & Austad, 2011; Schaie & Willis, 2010). These changes undoubtedly place constraints on activities at different ages. Few professional athletes ← 10 | 11 → (except golfers, perhaps) perform at the highest level beyond age 40, and most people in very advanced old age are subject to substantial constraints across multiple areas of functioning. However, the vast majority of individuals retain a wide array of options in many arenas throughout their lives. This flexibility is particularly apparent in discussions of communication: communication is not hugely dependent on physical speed or strength, and hence strong communication skills can be retained (and improved) long after specific physical declines are noticeable. Indeed, communication can be a means by which other declines are compensated for and by which control over one’s life circumstances can be maintained when challenges occur. For instance, individuals marshal assistance, maintain social and emotional support, seek medical care, and assert their independence through communicative channels (Haase, Heckhausen, & Wrosch, 2013). In other words, thinking about communicative processes forces us to recognize that age is not simply something that “happens” to us, but rather something we can manage and over which we can exert considerable control.

Individual Differences Coexist with Differences in Age-Based Averages

Whatever the broad age-based patterns that we identify and theorize about, there are substantial individual differences that must be considered. At times, the interesting questions for theorists might be how these standard deviations change over time (e.g., examining whether there is more variability on certain dimensions among certain age groups: Rabbitt, 2011; cf. Salthouse, 2011)—questions that haven’t been given as much attention as questions about mean differences (Hedden & Gabrieli, 2004). One person may experience a challenging old age beset by physical and cognitive problems; another may have a vigorous retirement characterized by leisure, travel, and giving back to the community. The source of those individual differences resides in social and interactional processes (including communication), biological (including genetic) variables, and economic disparities that deny some people the resources required to age successfully (Giles, Davis, Gasiorek, & Giles, 2013; Rowe & Kahn, 1998). In terms of communicative processes, those of us interested in aging should not lose track of the literatures explaining communication processes through other mechanisms; just because we are examining older adults does not mean that our other theories lose their explanatory power and age suddenly explains most of the variance.

Aging Is an Ambiguous Word


XII, 460
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
theory research adolescence adulthood childhood
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 460 pp.

Biographical notes

Jon F. Nussbaum (Volume editor)

Jon F. Nussbaum (PhD, Purdue University) is Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and Human Development & Family Studies at Penn State University. He is the past president of the International Communication Association and former editor of the Journal of Communication. He is co-author of Communication and Intimacy in Older Adulthood (2009) and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Health Communication (2011).


Title: The Handbook of Lifespan Communication
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
476 pages