Successful Aging… Who Knew?

We’re a success-obsessed society. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble into the term “successful aging.”

But I was. And at first, I was confused.

What could successful aging possibly mean? Managing to stay healthy – until you’re not? Having sufficient money to cover doctor’s bills and medications? Avoiding, if possible, being shuffled off to a home – tucked out of sight and mind, even more invisible than the worst invisible day in midlife?

Frankly, like most women, the last thing I want is to picture myself oldeven though I know it’s inevitable – that is, if I’m lucky.

Then I read this article on Psychology Today, Planning for Successful Aging at Mid-Life.”

Addressing several theories of aging, Dr. Kathryn Betts Adams explains the concepts of successful aging, and she does so in a way that seems practical and realistic, though I certainly have my questions.

Successful Aging

Dr. Adams explains successful aging as follows:

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.


Avoid health problems. Use it or lose it when it comes to body and mind. Engage with others. That all sounds fine.

Then again – we don’t always control the fates when it comes to injury, accident, or illness. Eat well if possible? Exercise if possible? Sure! We can! If possible.

Dr. Adams is clearly aware of the assumptions (and limitations) of that rosy self-fulfilling set of factors. Consequently, she notes that gerontologists are looking to broaden their studies to include those for whom some “disadvantage” may occur – for example, illness or other misfortune.

What Do You Need at 40? At 60? At 80?

Returning to my initial guess at what “successful aging” might entail – I was partially on target with good physical and mental health, again, to the extent it is possible.

As for my preoccupation with finances (hello, Gray Divorce?), that may not fall within the purview of Dr. Adams’ discussion, but I think it’s a major factor in facilitating our health, long before we’re concerned with maintaining a decent lifestyle in old age.

Aren’t money and its stresses critical to this discussion?

Dr. Adams goes on to emphasize the importance of social interaction to aging well, the need to surround ourselves with those who are supportive and friendly as early as possible, and she extends the current dialog to include the desire for meaning.

She writes:

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.

Let me reiterate: meaningful activity, a sense of belonging.

I was immediately reminded of the woman I met a few weeks back – quite the babe – older than I originally thought, talking about her grandchildren, and still looking forward, setting goals, and expecting to contribute.

What I wanted at 40? Not so different from what I wanted at 50. And when I hit 60? Or 70? Or 80?

Accepting Age, Gracefully

I’d like to think I’ve been “successfully aging” for many years.

I believe in age-defying age acceptance – doing what we think is reasonable to feel good about ourselves, but looking for connection as well as meaning.

Communities are essential. So is taking care of ourselves while we can. I recognize there is room for improvement on both those dimensions when it comes to my own life.

But Dr. Adams makes a special point of not adding to the midlife heap of must-do tasks when she says:

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.

She advises us to be practical, and she recognizes both intention and luck in the way that we are likely to age.

Carpe Diem, and Then Some

Picture myself old? Um… no thank you. What woman of any age wants to imagine her own reflective Dorian Gray?

Granted, at the half-century mark, we’re more than aware of the signs of our aging, but isn’t it hard enough to come to terms with midlife, and the persistent fight against age discrimination?

Then again, on my high-energy days – especially after an oh-so-good cup of French Roast and slipping into my kick-assiest stilettos – yes, maybe I can steel myself to imagine life at 70 or 80. It makes sense to consider the future, and the time to start is now.

We’re more likely to pass gracefully into our older years if we’re thoughtful about the needs of body, mind, spirit and community. And ideally, that involves making our time on this earth meaningful – whatever our age.

Now about Dr. Adams’ final recommendation, which is comfortable shoes – I’m not ceding that one just yet. Ask me again, when I hit 75.


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  1. says

    Oh yes.. hold the line at the shoes!!!… But I have to admit that I bought a pair of really comfy leather clogs the other day.. oh the shame!!!

    The comfy comfy shame!


    p.s. I will not be wearing them out of the house.. THERE I draw the line.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Ah, Maddie. Woman after my own heart! (We really have to hold the line somewhere. Of course for me, it just might be half a dozen pair of shoes at once… as accessories…) 😉

  2. says

    Excellent post! So much here to ponder….I know I can’t defy ageing…it is going to happen no matter what I do…but, maybe I can make sure I am healthy and have provisions for those needs. I actually want to spend some time thinking about what this really means to me!!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Dr. Adams’ article really was thought-provoking, Pam. I hope you pop over and read it. It made me realize that I stop short of imagining the future in certain ways (probably like many of us), but if I consider it in more natural fashion – looking around at some examples of those aging “well” – there are things I can do today to make tomorrow potentially better. Then again, don’t we all carry around a much younger “vision” of ourselves in our mind’s eye? Is there something in us that resists picturing ourselves older?

      I wonder…

      So glad you stopped by!

  3. says

    All those things, taking care of ourselves both physically and financially, staying physically and socially active are all great. Besides all that… what I’m also focusing on at this stage is her mention of ” socio-emotional selectivity theory”. I’m culling and dumping the relationships that drain and are negative. I assume because, as she says, the older I get the less time I want to waste on draining relationships.
    Great post.

  4. says

    No mention of spirituality? To me, that is fundamental…seeing each day of my advancing life unfold and maintaining a sense of excitement about it, knowing that God has already numbered and planned my days and sees fit to have me here for another day? THAT, to me, is successful (I’d call it graceful) aging. The wisdom that comes with aging is such a great reward for a life well-lived. I have no problem picturing myself as a wizened old lady but maybe that’s because I am confident in what awaits me on the other side of that.

  5. BigLittleWolf says

    Actually, Old Married Lady, Dr. Adams mentions faith in her article – what I loosely refer to as taking care of mind, body, ‘spirit’ and community. So yes – for those who believe, there is much comfort and more.

  6. says

    I guess it says all you need to know about me that I am at a point in my life where it made my throat clutch up to read this. Sigh. Working on it…

    Mais quand-même, tu as tout dit, l’argent…la vieillesse…whew. If I had a bit more security…

  7. says

    What a great article, DA. I like that I finished it and didn’t feel stressed out to have to do one more thing. Can’t we be a bit gentle with ourselves? And bravo that you ended with a yummy pair of shoes – with that you gave my life a little more meaning today.

  8. says

    I was thinking about this the other day after listening to the laundry list of prescription drugs each of our parents are taking. I wondered what kind of drugs I’ll be dependent on in 10 or 20 years. I’m not tied to anything except a thyroid pill now and it scares me to think I may need a whole pharmacy before it’s all said and done. But…I hope I’m never too old to love those shoes!!! :-)

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