Thursday, February 1, 2018

Long for Longitudinal Looks at Seniors

Approaching his ninth decade, Fred Jones described life as “like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The span is too long just to have a bridge, so they had to have a bridge and an underpass. So part of it you’re up here, and part of it you’re down here, and finally you get to the Eastern Shore. Good days, bad days. But overall it’s good days.”
     Mr. Jones shared this with New York Times writer John Leland who included it in his article “Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old Person,” one in a series as Mr. Leland tracks and writes about the same group of elderly adults over the years. That’s a longitudinal look. It contrasts with cross-sectional research about seniors, in which findings on older adults are compared with findings on different people who are younger adults.
     Many more studies about seniors are cross-sectional than longitudinal. Keeping track of the same group of people over the years is difficult. With the elderly, a number will be lost to death. Mr. Jones passed away before Mr. Leland completed the second article in his series.
     There are also age challenges for the researcher. Regarding the “Up Series,” in which Michael Apted has produced a movie every seven years about the development of the same group of British children, Mr. Apted is quoted as saying, “I hope to do ‘84 Up’ when I’ll be 99.” Often, longitudinal research is conducted by teams who can pass the baton along. Such a study, verifying how emotional well-being improves with old age, has involved academics from Stanford University, UCSF, UCLA, Pennsylvania State University, Northwestern University, and University of Virginia.
     Longitudinal research does provide a richness of insights beyond what’s available from cross-sectional research. We get a better view of the study participants’ perspectives as they traverse the bridge of life Mr. Jones had described. That multi-university study saw how improvement in emotional experience occurs even when physical health and verbal fluency are taken into account. This conclusion required individual-to-individual comparisons.
     For retailers, proper cross-sectional research almost always provides sufficient tips. We’re looking for what works differently with our senior customers than with our younger customers. However, when our questions concern how our loyal customers are quite likely to change their preferences as they age or we want to fully understand why the younger and older differ, we’ll find ourselves longing for the longitudinal.

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