Still Growing: Three Pathways to Successful Aging
Longevity and wellness as we get older are within our grasp if we do this.
Posted May 17, 2020
By 2050, 10% of the U.S. population will be 90 or older, according to the Census Bureau. What are we going to do with those “super-sized lives”?
That is the question posed by Laura Carstensen, an expert on aging, in her book, A Long Bright Future.
Assuming the coronavirus crisis and its aftermath do not significantly change the trajectory of human longevity (and, writing these words in the midst of it, I worry about that), those who retire at age 65 could easily have 20-30 more years of active life. How can you make the most of those precious 30 years? Whether retired or not, how could you ensure that your older years are happy and healthy ones?
The term "successful aging" is often used to describe an aging process that is fulfilling, happy, and healthy for as long as possible. While experts differ, most would agree that the key elements of successful aging are “life satisfaction, longevity, freedom from disability, mastery and growth, active engagement with life, and independence,” according to aging expert Harry Moody.
In this post, I’ll describe three pathways to successful aging. I've mapped these routes in part from research, in part from my personal experience and that of others my age. A given person could follow these paths in sequence or go back and forth among them. In a way, we are always on all three paths, at any age, at any given time.
But—and this is a big but—all three concepts of successful aging depend heavily on another set of factors, factors described in the last section.
Path 1: Youthful Aging, a.k.a. Active Aging
The motto for this path could be "forever young.” Although many of us older people would shudder at the idea of reliving our youth, the idea of looking and feeling perpetually youthful is appealing. There are even some healthy and realistic ways to do it, as I discuss here. At its best, this path is characterized by dedicated self-care—preventing diseases of aging through exercise, healthy eating, stress reduction, good relationships, and other healthy habits. When focused on healthful behaviors, followers of this path can frequently avoid many diseases of aging and stay stronger longer.
Sometimes the good intentions of the Youthful Agers get hijacked by the “anti-aging industrial complex,” as described by Susan Douglas in her book, In Our Prime. According to Douglas, beauty companies and their advertisers urge older people, especially women, to use their “age-defying” products and do the impossible: Never grow or look old. When looking older is somehow suspect—you aren’t trying hard enough!—the anti-aging attitude can easily slip into ageism, as Douglas points out.
Though a bit problematic, the youthful aging path has a huge upside. Youthful, active older people help dent the stereotypes about aging, broadening everyone's idea of what "old" really is. That process is "age-defying" in the best sense of the word!
Path 2: Productive Aging
Like Path 1, this aging pathway focuses on sustaining health and vitality but broadens the idea of successful aging to include “productive aging.” Productive aging emphasizes an active search for a purposeful life as one ages. A meaningful life can involve contributing to society through work, grandparenting, volunteer work, a legacy project, or helping others.
Many on this path might boast that their motto is, "Never retire." Certainly, productive aging can involve the goal of continuing to earn money, whether to build up savings, contribute to the next generation, or shore up the ability to live independently. Let's face it—money can help seniors stay independent and buy some of the services they may need—housekeeping, gardening, transportation, among others.
Youthful aging and productive aging criss-cross in that they share the idea that “A good old age … is just an old age with minimum sickness or frailty, as much like youth or midlife as possible,” as Moody puts it. For older people who desire to pursue meaningful career or retirement goals, good health and energy are essential. If you are an athlete, leader, teacher, or anyone with an ambitious goal, you need stamina and grit to keep going.
With luck, good genes, and good habits, many older people could have a “healthspan” that is almost identical to their lifespan. However, most of us will find that our health status will change, whether dramatically or in small steps. And that’s where the third path comes in.
Path 3: Conscious Aging
Eventually, most of us can no longer postpone decline but must adapt to it. “Conscious aging”* refers to the deliberate choice to tap into creativity, inner strength, spirituality, and mindfulness to meet life’s demands despite losses of strength, mobility, and productivity. Creatively compensating for those losses can become one marker of successful aging on this third pathway.
There are at least three helpful ways to age consciously. One way is behavioral—through figuring out adequate substitutes for activities that various limitations have rendered impossible. In the realm of exercise, for example, a person might walk instead of jog or run. In the realm of social contribution, an older person might offer emotional support to children and grandchildren, even though he can no longer provide direct care.
A second way to age consciously is by becoming more mindful of the small details of daily life and appreciating them. Coffee with a friend, the light at dusk, a shapely vase, flowers, trees—older people learn to savor all these small pleasures. While not exclusive to the conscious aging path by any means, the ability to enjoy life's small pleasures is a great comfort in later years.
A third way to age consciously is by changing one’s inner attitude. Viktor Frankl, who wrote about his survival in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, famously wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
How do older people cultivate attitudes that promote coping and even growth? As Moody puts it, “Personal meaning is sustained through inner resources permitting continued growth even in the face of loss, pain, and physical decline.” "Inner resources" could include various acts of introspection. Either alone or with help, elders might conduct a “life review,” allowing them to relive and discover new meaning in the events of their life. They could make an inner decision to become role models who demonstrate bravery in the face of suffering and death. They could focus on positive emotions such as gratitude that enable them to face the future with some degree of equanimity.
What Makes All Three Types of Successful Aging Possible?
American culture tends to place a premium on self-reliance, individualism, and hard work. These traits can indeed promote successful aging.
But, as numerous experts point out, notably Louise Aronson in her prize-winning book Elderhood, the journey through old age must rest as well on a foundation of societal support. This support should begin at infancy and continue through adulthood and old age. Longevity and wellness for seniors is only possible if we can prevent and cure diseases throughout the life cycle, encourage and teach healthy behaviors, and provide access to medical, mental health, and dental care. Besides social services and healthcare, specific resources for seniors could also include: assistive devices, such as hearing aids and glasses (not currently reimbursed by Medicare); help and compensation for caregivers; excellent rehab facilities, nursing homes, and hospice care; physical and occupational therapy; an end to age discrimination in employment; pensions and other financial resources; and a reasonable retirement age. Our social safety net must be mended and extended so that these benefits are available to all.
Otherwise, the “Golden Years” will be tarnished by poverty and ill health, except for the very wealthiest among us. And that is a shame when successful aging could easily be within the reach of all.
© Meg Selig, 2020. For permissions, use the contact form here.
*The phrase "conscious aging" can be traced at least as far back as a 1992 book by that name, authored by Ram Dass.
Harry R. Moody, “From Successful Aging to Conscious Aging,” in Wykle, M.L. et al, Successful Aging Through the Life Span (2005), NY: Springer Publishing. I highly recommend this remarkable essay!
Carstensen, L. (2011) A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity. NY: PublicAffairsT.
Douglas, S. J. (2020). In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead. NY: WW Norton.
Aronson, L. (2019) Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life. NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.