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