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Success in Aging

By Trena Winans, Senior Services Education & Community Outreach Director

It seems every time you turn around, you hear the terms “Successful Aging” or “Graceful Aging.” A question emerges—what defines success in later Successyears?

All too often “Successful Aging” refers to fitness and activity level. While these are excellent goals and do lead to a higher quality of life, are we implying that people who are less fit have failed? If by chance, because of circumstance or disease, you are not able to be very physically active, are you “failing” at aging?

Even as a fitness professional, I think the answer is a resounding “No!” Striving for fitness and physical activity is an excellent goal and will help you feel better, but it doesn’t need to be the litmus test for how well you are mastering this stage of your life. Avoiding illness and disability is great, but sometimes genetics, accidents or even unknown factors can strike anyone, regardless of their lifestyle. No one should be made to feel a failure in these circumstances.

Other modern definitions of successful aging include low risk of disease or disease-related disability, high mental and physical function, and active engagement with life. All are excellent goals to shoot for, but do not define success in aging.

It may be of interest in exploring this question to look far back into history. In a recent translation to English by Richard Gerberding, we can see the thoughts of Marcus Tullius Cicero who wrote an essay entitled On Old Age. He says, “With physical ability, each age of life has to learn to control its desire for more of it and to attempt only what it can. That means you will not be shackled or frustrated by the desire for a body that you no longer have (or probably never really had). On the other hand, you must make a stand against the weaknesses of old age…You must exercise modestly and eat and drink to aid the body, not to burden it. And not just the body, but especially the mind and even more the spirit. Old age will extinguish these unless you give them fuel.”

In her blog, Time Goes By, elder blogger Ronni Bennett recently asked her readers what constitutes successful aging. Several thought-provoking responses followed.

From “Cathy” — “There are young people who have to cope with disabilities, failing bodies, loneliness, mental health issues, lack of income, etc. just as there are older people who do so. Do we ask if the younger people are ‘aging’ successfully? Why do we focus on age instead of the individual? Silly, if you ask me.”

From “Jean” — “I for one also don’t think we should have to climb a mountain or jump out of an airplane to prove we’re still—what—young at heart? Goal orientated? I can prove those things by just jumping out of bed in the morning and walking down to the mail box. Still loving life is how I judge success in the aging process, knowing full well some day I might not feel that way and with good reason. When disease or disability reign supreme in my body I will be in the dying process but until then, I am aging successfully no matter what I choose to do with my time.”

“Scotty” posted this — “I think of successful aging as having ‘agency;’ being able to actively make a difference, helping myself and helping others.”

“Ned Smith” had this to say — “If ‘successful aging’ is about doing the best with what you’ve got, is unsuccessful aging about not taking full advantage of your physical and intellectual capacities and wallowing in a pool of self-pity? We are whatever we think we are. I’m 80 but not old.”

And my personal favorite comes from “Marion” — “Erik Erikson, who divided life into eight stages, described the challenge of the eighth and final stage (age 65 through the end of life) as ‘Integrity versus Despair.’ It’s the stage in which we reflect back on the life we’ve lived and come away with either a sense of fulfillment or a sense of regret and despair. So in Eriksonian terms, ‘successful aging’ can therefore be seen as achieving that sense of fulfillment and completion. More recently Bill Plotkin, in his book Nature and the Human Soul, offers a new model in which he contrasts healthy (soulcentric) development with dysfunctional (egocentric) development. I find his model really inspiring. It certainly answers, for me, the question ‘what is successful aging?’”

I offer no answers, but only the question—What does “Successful Aging” mean to you? Or is that the wrong question to ask?

For my part, I prefer to replace “Graceful Aging” with “Grateful Aging.”