Successful Aging

I recently visited the website of the Center on Aging Studies Without Walls at the University of Missouri—Kansas City. Within the website, there is a section that discusses the concept of “successful aging.”

It has not escaped my notice that I am aging. Aging being what it is, I have also become aware that I will get just one crack at it. Doing it successfully seems like a worthy goal.

Although the term “successful aging” might be considered to be generic, the Successful Aging (SA) website credits Robert Havighurst for introducing the term in a 1961 article for The Gerontologist. In the context of his article, Havighurst defined “successful aging” in the following words:

A theory of successful aging is a statement of the conditions of individual and social life under which the individual person gets a maximum of satisfaction and happiness and society maintains an appropriate balance among satisfactions for the various groups which make it up—old, middle-aged, and young, men and women, etc. The latter part of this definition serves to emphasize the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, which is a useful principle in considering the question of the success of any segment of a society. No segment of a society should get satisfaction at a severe cost to some other segment.

The SA website references a book that took the term for its title. Successful Aging by John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn (1998) was a report on the results of the MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America. Rowe and Kahn conclude that lifestyle choices determine how well we age. Although genetic inheritance may play a role, successful aging, it seems, depends to a greater extent on the choices we make about how we live our life.

The SA website is focused on aging well. “Wellness” is associated with successful aging. Physical health is a part of wellness, but the SA website perceives wellness as a broader concept that “represents balance among the environment, emotional, spiritual, social, physical and cultural aspects of the individual’s life.” Successful aging, therefore, may consist of the ability to find a comfortable balance of these aspects, a balance among the multiple worlds that a person occupies. Successful aging has to do with quality of life and life satisfaction—in whatever stage or age of life we find ourselves.

So, what does “successful aging” look like? The SA website lists the following characteristics:

  • Physical health
  • Financial security
  • Productivity
  • Independence
  • An optimistic outlook
  • Involvement with meaningful and supportive activities and people

Successful aging relates to having the ability to perform or function and to having a large measure of control or power over one’s circumstances. In addition, attaining life satisfaction as a part of aging successfully comes from achieving personal goals and finding richness or meaning in life. The conditions of successful aging, put more simply, are capability, control and purpose.

Success is a matter of perception. People who age well, the website notes, are likely to perceive that their circumstances are rewarding and positive.

Although “successful aging” is a fundamental concept in gerontology, a definition remains elusive. Lucille Bearon discussed the evolving definitions of successful aging in “Successful Aging: What does the ‘good life’ look like?” (1996). Bearon noted that the “empirical realities of aging” suggest that the definition of successful aging may require a “two-tiered approach.” That is, impaired or frail older adults may yet be able to find satisfaction and meaning in life even in a state of dependency, and “success” must be defined differently for that population, compared with healthier, more independent adults.

Two trends in gerontology mentioned briefly in Bearon’s article provide avenues for better understanding the notion of successful aging. “Continuity theory” (proposed by sociologist Robert Atchley in 1972) suggests that people who age most successfully carry forward into later life the habits, preferences, lifestyles and relationships they practice or develop in midlife. Changes occur in later life, but they happen gradually. Life has continuity. This theory suggests that life satisfaction in the middle years would be a good predictor of satisfaction later in life—or, in other words, successful aging.

The other trend is what Bearon calls the “strengths of aging” approach. This approach suggests that “intrinsic motivation” is the foundation for action and resilience as people age. An element of successful aging, therefore, lies in the “inner dimensions of experience.”

Although I often find that my “inner dimensions” can be pretty murky territory, I have no doubt that motivation from within is a part of successful aging. That “something inside” is the wellspring that finds resonance with what we experience as meaningful. It is the energy source that powers our optimism and animates our purpose as we look to the future.

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