Finding the pathway to successful aging

How can you find your pathway to successful aging?

Posted Nov 17, 2009

Many years ago, in the early 1960s, a group of noted psychologists and sociologists at the University of Chicago decided to try to chart the pathways that people in their middle and later years take as they adapt to the challenges of aging. At the time, these experts on aging, Bernice Neugarten, Robert Havighurst, and Sheldon Tobin (revered pioneers in the field) had little information to go on so they embarked on their mission with a large set of tools hoping to find out what the secret was to successful aging.

One of their missions was to discount the newly proposed and highly unpopular view of successful aging known as "disengagement theory." Proposed in 1961, this theory was completely unexpected and was eventually to rip apart at its seams the very fundamental assumptions of the field of gerontology. At the time, the considered wisdom was that successful aging involves active involvement in a variety of social roles. Don't retire and go to your rocking chair. No! If you must retire, which of course many people were forced to at the time, keep active! Meet new people, stay in touch with your family, participate in socially oriented hobbies. Disengagement theory made the shocking proposal that the process of aging involves a mutual withdrawal of the individual from society. At professional meetings, proponents of disengagement theory warred with proponents of the opposite view, "activity theory until eventually disengagement theory suffered what you might think would be its final blow, A follow-up study showed that the socially isolated eventually became depressed and had indeed lost their joie de vivre.

You would think that disengagement theory would have died its natural death by then but no, it still lingers on in the halls of the introductory psychology lecture because it still lingers on in textbooks. Like the midlife crisis it is one of those myths of aging that refuses to retreat from the public consciousness. Though by no means as popular as the midlife crisis, the fact that disengagement theory is still taught means that it will probably never completely go away.

In the Chicago study headed up by Bernice Neugarten, the disengaged were found to exist but they were a tiny minority of the participants they studied. Their overall conclusion was that patterns of aging, established in middle age, reflect the individual's personality. If you were a go-getter who enjoyed active involvement in your community as a midlife adult, you'll probably express that same zest for life in your retirement years (if you do in fact choose to retire).

This conclusion was a great advance over the either-or disengagement vs. activity theory debate, and we have much to learn from the work of these early researchers, particularly with regard to their methods which were broad scale and intensive involving projective testing, interviews, and social activity ratings. In subsequent decades, researchers in aging took the bll by the horns and invented a myriad of self-report measures designed to get at how exactly to measure personality. Unfortunately, the process devolved away from the more dynamic approach of seeing how people change and grow over time and how their personalities become altered in response to the challenges brought about by the aging process.

In putting together the findings from my research on midlife baby boomers, I've found it helpful to go back and study what the founders of the field wrote about the pathways to successful aging. If it is true, as the Peter Allen song goes, that "Everything Old is New Again," it is important to avoid reinventing the wheel. To move forward, though, we have to make sure that the new is really "new." What was new for my study was the fact that I followed a large group of men and women from college through their late 50s so that I had many years of data to use as a basis for developing the pathways. I also found that people weren't stuck by virtue of their personalities in a preset pathway, but that they could take that leap of faith and move onto a more satisfying pathway that would allow them to express their true selves. And maybe that is the key to successful aging: knowing when it's time to re-examine where you're heading and then having the willingness to take the risks to change.

Here are the pathways I've identified:

Meandering Way:  you are unable to settle on a clear set of goals and a way to achieve those goals

Straight and Narrow Path: your life is characterized by predictability; you shy away from risk and don't enjoy changing your routines.

Downward Slope: you had everything going for you when you were young, however things started to go wrong and now you regret your choices.

Triumphant Trail:  your inner resilience has allowed you to overcome significant challenges that could have led you to despair.

Authentic Road: you have continuously examined your life's direction and forced yourself to take an honest look at whether it is truly satisfying.

Clearly, the Authentic Road and the Triumphant Trail are the pathways to successful aging. Flexibility, as is shown by those on the Authentic Road, allows you to look at your life with a critical eye and drop what doesn't work and try to add what will. Being resilient, as is true of those on the Triumphant Trail, allows you to weather the changes that you will confront as you get older.

Aging is much more of a challenge for those on the first three pathways. If you are on the Meandering Way, aging may be harder for you because you may feel you haven't accomplished anything of worth and your life has drifted around from one enterprise to another. On the Downward Slope, you may have made poor decisions that limited your ability to succeed, and now you think you're running out of time. The Straight and Narrow pathway may not seem as problematic. After all, a little stability and predictability in life is sometimes a good thing. But when it comes to aging, you'll need to roll with the punches and be willing to adjust both your view of yourself and your lifestyle patterns to accommodate the changes that await you.

Although I developed these pathways from my own sample and study methods, now looking back at the work of the Chicago researchers and others who paved the way for research like min, I see some striking similarities. These earlier researchers characterized one group of the unsuccessful agers as "Armored-defended"- much like the Straight and Narrow. Another group was called the "unorganized," much like the Meandering Way pathway in my research.

The Downward Slope did not emerge in this research, but I did find a comparable pathway in another study by an earlier group of researchers studying retirement. Reichard et al. identified a group called the "Self-Haters." Seems like they possessed those tragic qualities that, unless they can reverse, will lead them to a despairing and unhappy old age.

The final pathway, the true successful agers, was the "integrated," who reorganized their priorities and role involvements to meet the challenges of aging. These were the truly successful agers-- like the Authentic Road and Triumphant Trail pathways, the integrated were the best adapted.

How can you turn your pathway into a successful one? Here are five tips, which I discuss more fully in my book, published by Ballantine Books, The Search for Fulfillment:

1. Take an honest stock of your life. Are you headed where you want to be? Are you open to making changes if need be?

2. Ask someone close to you to help you assess your pathway. In research that I am currently conducting, I ask students to complete a questionnaire assessing the pathways of their parents. I can then compare how closely the students and parents agree. Though children aren't always totally objective in evaluating their parents and might not be the best judges, sometimes they are willing to be more honest with us than anyone else we know. If you don't have your own children, find someone else who has seen you in a variety of contexts, preferably with your defenses down, and ask them for feedback.

3. If a big change seems too scary, start with baby steps. One small change can quickly balloon into a larger one especially if it meets with success. Eventually you will feel more confident about taking bigger and bigger steps.

4. Don't feel you have to change just to change. It would be unfortunate if you threw off some of the parts of your life that are bringing you fulfillment just because you're afraid of becoming boring and predictable. You also don't need to go chasing after change just to seem younger or cooler. Some of those "uncool" parts of yourself may be the ones that uniquely define you and if you get rid of them you may lose some of your individuality.

5. Seek help if you can't do it on your own. Counseling, therapy, and involvement in self-help groups can give you both perspective and practical tools to make those changes that you've been unable or unwilling to initiate on your own. Becoming more physically active can also give you a new energy that can improve your mental outlook as well.

Knowing which pathway you're on is the first step toward making the changes that will lead you to aging successfully. As the actor John Barrymore so wisely observed: "A man* is not old until regrets take the place of dreams."

*or woman, of course

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2009