A Commentary On Successful Aging - What Does it Mean and Who Defines It?

Maureen Hildebrand - September 19, 2010 07:06 PM

Those of us in the baby boom generation are awakening and coming to terms with end of life issues like never before and contemplating what the term "successful aging" means to us.  Days of footloose and fancy free living and an attitude of "live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse" went out with the 60's.

According to the Administration on Aging in the Department of Health and Human Services, Current Population Reports, issued May 2010:

"Between 2010 and 2050, the United States is projected to experience rapid growth in its older population.  In 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, more than double its projected population of 40.2 million in 2010.  The baby boomers are largely responsible for this increase in the older population, as they will begin crossing into this category in 2011."

Most people would agree that one of the factors of successful aging is good health, but all other factors are a matter of personal experience and interpretation.  It would also appear that what one determines as successful changes with increasing age and even good health is subject to reinterpretation, as research and modern medicine make adjusting to the realities of our ailments easier to deal with.

Having financial security in retirement and an ability to maintain a comfortable standard of living is certainly important and the number of people able to claim it is diminishing in this economy.  This is not a sign of personal failure.  Rather it's a result of the recession and many currently lack success in this area.

Religion, spirituality and prayer provides the sustenance and community necessary for continued well-being.  For many seniors, church is their primary source for socialization and it also gives them opportunities to be helpful and feel useful.  In my small parish, our eldest member is a youthful looking 91.  Our bishop had her reframe the statement "We're getting older" to "We're not as young as we used to be" and this suits her well.  

A question I have heard others working with seniors ponder is, what would be worse - having major physical limitations or pain with the brain totally intact and being aware of the decline; or having severe dementia or Alzheimer's?  It's not easily answered.

Many people say that having family is important, but families are often scattered across miles and then, what of the many other families that are dysfunctional or estranged from each other?  Conversely, what about adult children who move back home, not to take care of their aging parents, but because they can't make it on their own?  How about grandparents raising grandchildren? 

Others have to re-define what family means entirely.  If relationships in the immediate family are lacking, what are our options?  We can work on them and try to mend or improve them; we can decide to let them go and be alone; or let them go and build new friendships with the people around us and deepen the relationships we have with them.  We had no choice about what family we were born into but we can choose a new one or fill in new members.

A friend recently spoke about reuniting with old friends, making new ones and considering them family.  We each have in common brothers who aren't involved with us and we've come to the realization that a relationship can't be forced - both people have to want it or all the effort in the world won't help.  Other people can't be controlled and there's no sense in trying.

Farm living is not for those planning to slow down in retirement.  I'd venture to say it keeps my friends young, watching them tend to all the animals with more energy than I, even after my first cup of coffee.  They go from the time they get up in the morning until bed time seven days a week!

One of the comments I've often heard from  elders is that they don't worry about things much anymore and they don't care what other people think of them.  I'm not there yet, but my best friend, who died way too young in her mid forties, had reached that state of being, and I've always thought of that quality one to look forward to. 

I'm getting to know a 70 year old neighbor and hope to see more of  my new friend.  What an interesting woman, I thought, when she spoke about some of her closest friendships with people decades younger than her.  "Sometimes you just need a project", she said, describing her latest collaboration that involved fixing a roof at her friend's parent's house.  She doesn't like playing cards or watching television and is definitely not, I agreed, ready to join the local senior center, though they have tried to recruit her to teach painting. 

Gardening is another one of her passions and has become a hobby of mine, too.  We had both read that there are endorphins in dirt which make you feel good.  There has been a lot written lately about the benefits of gardening and how more people are finding enjoyment in it, particularly retirees and the unemployed.  Any hands on project that produces immediate, tangible results lifts the spirits.

Other friends of retirement age, still working or not, love having the freedom to travel.  One friend told me that, when he worked, he never accepted a job that didn't offer sufficient vacation time.  Some of the fondest memories told by seniors I've known have related to travel.

In summary, what signifies successful aging varies for each individual, although factors like good health and finances are common.  Overall,  contrary to an outdated vision of the little old lady or man sitting in a rocking chair on their porch, what's important to seniors today is maintaining an active lifestyle well into old age. They desire to nurture body, mind and spirit toward that aim and live life with a sense of purpose and meaning. 

Footnotes and Sources

1. www.aoa.gov


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