The current study examined the role of item-specific, relational, and elaborative processing on adaptive memory. Younger and older adults received the standard survival processing, a survival-short, or a pleasantness processing instruction. The survival-short condition was specifically included to lead to fewer possibilities to engage in elaborative processing. Furthermore, half of the presented words were categorized words to boost relational processing. Younger adults demonstrated the typical survival recall advantage in that standard survival processing instructions resulted in superior free recall performance than that of the survival-short and the pleasantness processing groups. Among older adults, no mnemonic benefit of standard survival processing relative to the survival-short or pleasantness processing groups was found. Furthermore, reducing the probability of elaborative processing (i.e., through the survival-short processing instructions) abolished the survival recall advantage. Our results thus provide further evidence for the role of item-specific, relational, and elaborative processing in the survival processing advantage.