This paper assesses the impact of disturbing life events over five years on the wellbeing of 340 people aged 80–84 years at baseline, by analysing data from a longitudinal survey in Switzerland. The guiding proposition was that the negative effect of life events is moderated by the event domain, i.e. health, deaths and changes in family setting and relationships, and by cognitive adaptation to one's own health state (adopting a more or less optimistic view). Multi-level regression that controlled for the effect of socio-demographic and health factors was used. Corroborating the first hypothesis, a model that differentiated the event categories, instead of their additive inclusion, gave the best fit. In support of the second hypothesis, it was shown that the positive impact of self-rated health reduced the negative effect of life events on wellbeing for survivors, but not for those who died within five years. This suggests that the former made more optimistic appraisals of their mental and physical health, while the latter adjusted their subjective health rating to their functional abilities. Survivors had better psychological resources for coping with disturbing life events, while the deceased lacked these resources, which buffered the impact of negative events. The psychological meaning of stressful events at the end of life is discussed. By encouraging optimistic self-evaluations of health, and raising awareness of the range of normal functioning of older people, health- and social-care practitioners can promote the maintenance of meaningful lives in old age.