A phrase we see quite a bit these days is “successful aging.” As a gerontologist, I probably see it more often than most of you, but I believe it is an idea that captures the imagination at midlife. We Baby Boomers are pretty competitive, and we like to do things well, so we are eager to prove we can age well. We’ve seen the ads for medications in magazines and the self-help columns and books spouting other related phrases, too: “vital aging,” “productive aging,” and various “age-defying” products.
Theories of aging
Trying to figure out how we age, and by association, how to age “successfully,” dates back to the 1950’s when gerontologists began to design research with the modest goal to better understand “normal aging.” How do older people differ psychologically and socially from younger people? Or more importantly, how do older people differ from their younger selves? Early theories of aging that sought to explain how people age included Activity Theory and Disengagement Theory, two that were developed and debated in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Activity Theory pointed to the importance of having social roles and activities in later life to replace those that are inevitably lost -say, because of retirement or widowhood. Disengagement Theory, meanwhile, pointed to the often-observed narrowing of older peoples’ social worlds and argued that it is natural phenomenon to disengage socially and emotionally when aging.
Gerontologists now believe that both these theories were overly simplistic to be the ‘universal theory of aging.’ Disengagement theory has been roundly criticized for encouraging a negative view of old age. But even Activity Theory does not address individual preferences and the fact that just being busy or active does not make life meaningful or assure “successful” aging. These days there is less emphasis on identifying a single theory of aging. We’ve learned that there are consistencies across chronological aging, but there are many, many more individual paths and much heterogeneity among older adults. In some ways, people grow less alike as they age, rather than more alike.
One of the theories of aging that I particularly like is called socio-emotional selectivity theory. The kernel idea of this theory is that as we age, in part in response to a sense of limited time left to us, we are more selective about the relationships in which we invest emotional energy. The theory, developed by Dr. Laura Carstensen, has fueled interesting research about how older people may differ in their social and emotional needs from younger people. Overall, some of the findings suggest, older people tend to choose relationships they see as reliable and comfortable, whereas younger people tend to respond more favorably than their elders to novelty and stimulation in relationships. Although this theory has been used to explain behavior of people in senior housing and nursing homes, one study reported that these changes start by around age 30!
Coining the term successful aging in 1996, researchers Rowe and Kahn presented their well-known definition that emphasized the interaction of three related elements: 1.) Avoidance of physical illness and disability, 2.) Maintenance of high physical and cognitive function, and 3.) Continuing engagement in social and productive activities. It seems rather straightforward to say you will be successful if you are healthy, high functioning, and socially engaged; however, this original definition was important because it moved the conversation from what is normal to what is optimal in later life and opened the door for researchers and others to think about what can we do, as individuals and as a society, to foster optimal or successful aging.
Some gerontologists, myself included, have noted that Rowe and Kahn’s definition of successful aging might favor the fortunate who have been spared ill health and mental or physical disability in later life. So in order to broaden and refine the concept of successful aging, gerontologists in the years since the publication of their work have incorporated issues such as privilege or disadvantage across the lifespan to better address some of the diversity among older adults.
A few researchers have gone straight to the source: asking older adults for their subjective perspectives on what successful aging means to them. Recent research on how older people define successful aging illustrates that people do indeed value good health and functioning (and the independence they allow) and social engagement, just as Rowe and Kahn wrote. However, research has also found that older people value and consider successful aging to include meaningful activity, not just keeping busy, and a sense of belonging to family, friendships, groups or communities. To many older people, exercising their spiritual beliefs and having a spiritual relationship to the world around them is another element of successful aging.
In more advanced old age, successful aging undoubtedly requires flexibility and adaptation in response to changes in health and functioning and the social losses that are so common. And when older people (or people of any age) are challenged by illness, pain, and loss of functioning, they are going to value physical comfort, freedom from physical and emotional suffering (including worry about finances), and access to the care they need.
What it means for us…
All the talk about successful and vital aging can be inspiring and empowering, but can also seem like another “should” for us that might make life more stressful during mid-life. I have to say, I don’t like the idea of someone telling me whether or not I’m a success at something that is nature’s doing, like getting older. Like the very definition of success, successful aging means many different things to different people.
However, in our 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s we still have time to make incremental changes aimed at preparing for an old age that’s as successful as it can be. My own gerontologically-informed ideas for these include the usual prescriptions to keep mentally and socially engaged, and I would add, think about and do for others, avoiding the trap of excessive self-involvement. By mid-life, we have realized there are few “ideal” relationships; no one is going to do everything for us, and be all we wish they could be. We can try to enjoy friends and family members on their own terms, for their unique contributions, and appreciate the good. But if we have to deal with difficult people because they are family, friends or neighbors, we also need to reach out to others who are supportive, friendly, and accepting. Pets can be great, as well. Positive relationships give us the “care” we all need throughout life, help keep loneliness at bay, and sustain us even if we don’t see our dearest friends or family members regularly.
For our bodies, we can try not to smoke and to savor our food and drink and take pleasure in preparing what we have. In general, it’s probably important at mid-life and beyond not to ignore health problems when they crop up. And they will. Stemming the tide of weight gain will help, and weight-bearing exercise or strength training is proven to be one of the more helpful practices for maintaining our mobility as we age. And by all means, at this point, we need to take the time to brush, floss, and rinse our teeth and go to the dentist regularly. There are probably no more second chances there. On aging skin, use whatever creams and salves keep you comfortable, moisturized and groomed. And, a personal favorite of mine: Wear comfortable and supportive shoes, at least 99% of the time!
This is a just a partial and somewhat idiosyncratic “successful aging” preparation list. It’s not equally as easy for everyone to do all of these things, financially, physically, or emotionally, so it’s best not to judge others but to support their efforts. I also try not to judge myself too harshly if I don’t do everything I ought to, and I highly recommend that approach to my fellow mid-lifers. So much in life is not within our control, and aging, at a fundamental level, is one of those things. We will get older and we will change in myriad ways, and if we live long enough, we will eventually lose some of our capacities. We can only do our best, accept and respect our bodies and minds, seek help when we need it, and as much as possible, surround ourselves with caring and positive relationships.
Kathryn Betts Adams Ph.D., M.S.W