The Time We Have Left: A Theory for Caregiving and Self-Care Alike

I recently began adjunct teaching for a local college. Given that my father, uncle, grandma, and grandpa were all educators, I felt a sense of history and continuity as I embarked on my first lecture, making sure to emulate a few of my dad’s signature gestures along the way.

Though the experience connected me to the past, it also oriented me toward the future. I was acutely aware that I’m in my 40s and that if I wanted to teach as well as write, I’d better do it sooner rather than later. In other words, my goal to teach was focused on an awareness of the time I had left, not on how much time I’ve already spent on this earth.

(c) mrpuen at

(c) mrpuen at

Of course, none of us really knows how long we have left. But we can surmise that such a time horizon shrinks as we get older. We might even find it logical to say that as time shrinks, our goals become more urgent – or even change altogether.

That’s why I was so fascinated by an article in Science that I’m using in an upcoming class regarding a cool idea called “socioemotional selectivity theory,” or SST for short. The article’s author, Laura Carstensen, posits that our subjective sense of future time (that is, the time we think we have left) plays a key role in our goals and motivations.

Research on SST has shown that younger people focus their goals on accumulating knowledge and trying new things, while older people center their goals on finding meaning and creating positive emotions. Is this simply due to the aging process? It might seem so, but the theory suggests that age is not really the driving factor in this difference. What really matters is the perception of how much time we have left.

Because most younger people assume they have ample time left to live, they’re more willing to invest their energies in activities that may not always be pleasant but that have a payoff such as a better job or the thrill of a novel, risk-taking experience. On the other hand, most older people sense that they have limited time left here on earth; therefore, they prefer to focus their energies on deepening and enhancing the relationships and interests they already have. Why waste time on an unknown when we already know which people and activities bring us joy?

Adding evidence to SST is Carstensen’s research showing that when younger people were told to imagine a shorter time horizon, their goals became more like those of older people. Likewise, when older people were asked to imagine that advances in medicine could assure them a much longer life, their goals became more similar to those of younger adults. So it’s not really aging that changes our goals – it’s our perception of the time we have left.

What does this have to do with caregiving? I see a dual application. First, I think SST can help caregivers approach caregiving with flexibility and compassion. It might be tempting to push loved ones into new activities and challenges because we think that this will help them combat decline and improve their quality of life. In some cases, this may be true because the person’s personality includes a gregariousness that overrides the premise of SST. But if your loved one resists, it might be wise to consider this theory and be sensitive to the time your family member thinks is left. Then, simply let them do what they determine makes them happy.

The second application of SST to caregiving deals with caregiver self-care. As a caregiver, you’re dedicating a sizable portion of your life to the care of another. We know all too well that your health and well-being can get lost in this process. I encourage you to take time every now and then to contemplate the time you have left – both in your own life and in the life you are spending with your loved one. How do you want to spend that time? Are there ways to be present in your caregiving role in such a way that allows you to focus on nurturing your relationship with your family member instead of simply getting things done? Are there memories you always wanted to explore with your loved one, either to record for future generations or simply to find meaning from those stories in your family member’s own words?

Now is the time. Because as solid of a theory as SST might be, we really never know how much time we have left.


Carstensen, L. L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312, 1913-1915.


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