Let’s talk about successful aging. With the graying of America this is becoming an increasingly important question, not only for us graybeards already immersed in the golden years, but for middle aged and younger adults as well. On average males born today will live to see 77, their female counterparts should outlast the men by some four years, living to 81. By contrast, a person born in 1900 had a life expectancy of just under fifty years.
There is a caveat to this last statistics that isn’t so well known. Life expectancy at birth has increased markedly because the chance of dying in your earlier years has greatly diminished. However, if you make it to say 60 or 70, the number of years you have left hasn’t increased much at all over the last century or even century and a half. A couple of years is all. Which is to say, in earlier times those who made it to 60 were a hardy bunch of survivors that had grown used to staying alive.
But back to the average person. A century ago likely that person was already dead. So much for retirement planning. That same person today not only makes it to retirement, but can expect an extra ten, fifteen, twenty, or even more years on this earth. Whether enjoying or enduring or struggling through these years, that is the question of successful aging.
It is a question that has intrigued me throughout my adult life, a working life spent in the field of gerontology. It is a multi-faceted field, encompassing both an ever-expanding body of knowledge and a vast service network. Over the final twenty-two years of my career, until I retired at age 68, I managed a non-profit continuing care retirement community, or CCRC. It was easily my most satisfying period of employment, one in which I got to stare aging in the face, in all its diversity.
You’d think after a career in the field that I’d have the answers to the big question. But such is not the case. For sure, there is no pat answer to what constitutes successful aging, or its converse, unsuccessful aging. My only advantage over the proverbial man in the street is that I can cloak my answers in a lot of scholarly jargon, which is to say baffle them with bullshit.
In this blog I certainly will not attempt any definitive answers. My aim is more modest, that is, to throw out some thoughts on the subject. It is a question, though, that people should think about and hopefully take measures to increase their odds of enjoying a successful late life experience.
My first thought is a question: Is successful aging an objective or a subjective state of being?
If an objective state, then successful aging should relate to a set of external variables. Some examples might be amount of retirement income, health status, number of friends, ones social standing. The enterprising social scientist could devise a set of variables, each amenable to measurement, for example on a scale of one to five or one to ten. The clever scientist might further weight individual scores on variables according to an assessment of their relative importance to successful aging. The final step would be adding up the points to derive a degree of success score. Let say he/she comes up with seven such measures for which a perfect score is 50. The scientist does some cogitating about it and decides that any score of 40 or above represents very successful aging, with above 45 as extremely successful. Moderately successful might lie between 30 and 40.
Then another scientist, a contrarian, comes along and asks the objectively successful oldster, Are you happy with your life? Some affirm the score and say something like yeah, life is pretty okay for me, especially considering the alternative. But then others answer the truth, old age sucks. Not exactly the response of a successful oldster.
So then this researcher goes to work and develops a set of subjective measures having to do with how one is experiencing his/her late life years. Could be such criteria as having good memories, or a sense of having accomplished life purposes, or are you happy with your life now, or do you look forward to tomorrow.
Successful aging as a state of mind likely involves the ability to live in the moment and experience it fully. A great, if apocryphal example is the Zen Buddhist who accidentally falls off a cliff and although headed for certain death, yet in transit admires a flower on a ledge half way down.
An interesting research project might be to study the degree of correlation between the scores derived from objective measures and those derived from subjective measures. I suspect there would be some positive correlation, but I seriously doubt that the coefficient of correlation would be anywhere near a hundred percent. Such a study has possibly been done, but I have long ago lost touch with the research side of aging, being retired after all with other fish to fry. (Such as writing my PI novels that hardly anyone reads. I shamelessly direct you to my web pages.)
The person in middle age, or younger, however he/she decides to define successful aging, should begin preparing for it. Is health status considered paramount? Then lifestyle habits and practices that promote health should take center stage during middle adulthood. It won’t guarantee success, but an unhealthy lifestyle is more likely to contribute to a miserable old age, or to not even getting there.
At 78, do I regard myself as an example of successful, or at least reasonably successful aging? I think that’s one I’ll keep to myself, at least for now.
At any rate, the question continues to fascinate, which is what spurred me to blog this subject. I welcome your comments and your ideas.