ELDER MUSIC: Creeque Alley
Will I Live Long Enough to Use All This?

What is Successful Ageing?

For several years now there has been a lot of talk about “successful ageing” (also called “ageing well”) and how to do it. Hardly a day goes by that I don't see a new article about it and in fact, Google the phrase and you'll get nearly half a million returns.

The not-very-clever joke told by people like me who don't like the phrase is, What is UNsuccessful ageing? Death?

The advocates of successful ageing - who are government and non-governmental agencies concerned with old people, academic researchers who specialize in ageing, and healthy lifestyle advisers who range from physicians to media bloviators like me – emphasize the big three prescriptions for successful ageing:

Physical and cognitive fitness
Active social life
Good diet and other healthy habits

There's nothing wrong with those admonitions except that they are all we are told about successful ageing with the accompanying implication that they will help us maintain a facsimile of youth.

As if that is the meaning of growing old. It is not.

So today, let's take those three “rules” as a given, set them aside and talk about some some other ways to think about how we age.

It is a blessing that I am intrigued with how my body and face show increasing signs of age - almost by the day now. A deeper wrinkle next to my mouth. Creases in my forehead more permanent. The crepe-y skin on my belly getting crepe-ier.

I cannot take credit for my fascination with these changes; it just happened along the way but I am grateful for it.

Imagine what it must be to regret one's face in the mirror every morning. It would be a dreadful affliction made worse in that it cannot be changed and attempts to do so – Botox, surgery, etc. – fool no one.

We all get old. When we do, we all look old. Get over it, stop paying attention to wrinkle remover ads (none of them work) and do something more interesting.

Without giving a single inch to the cultural conviction that growing old is only about disease and decline, it is good to learn acceptance, as becomes necessary.

If you can't clean the whole house in one go anymore, slow down. Do it in two days, three days or as long as it takes.

If, like me, you need a day off from people the day after a social engagement, do it. Learn to say no.

In recent years, there has been a not-so-subtle urging for old people to push themselves to physical extremes. Every time there is a news story about an 80-year-old climbing Mt. Everest or bungee jumping off a bridge, the unspoken question to the reader is, what are you doing sitting there watching television?

Do not accept this kind of thinking.

Even among the healthiest among us, if we live long enough, our physical capabilities will wane. It's okay. Do as much as you can or feel like doing and let the rest go. You won't be a bad person for it.

One of the most common things you hear from the recently retired is that they don't know what to do with all the time they have. Advice from the advocates is always the same: volunteer, join a club, get active.

You can do all those things if they are what interest you but now, at last, there is time to reflect on your life, think about where your life has taken you, what you have learned, note your accomplishments, forgive yourself for your failures and maybe set a new course.

This takes quiet time, alone time. Make notes, write a memoir even if it's only for yourself. These years are the time to remember, recall and work out what it all has meant to you.

This hardly covers it. The point I wanted to make today, and this doesn't really do it well, is that the emphasis of the “successful ageing movement” is pretty much 100 percent on physical health and the appearance of youth, and that is not good enough.

There is so much more to life and whatever the gurus of ageing well think, that IS what we are still doing at our age: living. In all ways available to us. Just like younger people.

The first and most important thing to remember about growing old is this: there is no wrong way to do it.

* * *

AFTERWORD: I was/am dissatisfied with this piece. It had been rolling around in my head for several days, I liked the general idea and had made some notes. But as happens sometimes, it is lacking. It just didn't develop well.

Nevertheless, I needed to move on with other plans and – good, bad or indifferent, the post needed to be to be finished.

Now, five or six hours later on a Sunday afternoon, I've been reading a couple of chapters in a book about perception of time that I will tell you more about at a later date because a great deal of it addresses the issue of how time seems to accelerate as we age.

In that regard, there is a relatively short passage that relates to the question of ageing well that applies to today's post. It is from Felt Time by Marc Wittman.

The author is discussing a work titled On the Shortness of Life by first century CE statesman and philosopher, Seneca, in which he scolds his countrymen who put off living until too late.

”...in Seneca's opinion, life only seems short to us – that is, to pass faster and faster - because we waste time on so many useless activities. 'Useless' does not necessarily mean lazy Sunday afternoons on the couch. Seneca endorses anything but an unconditional work ethic," writes Wittman.

“On the contrary, he wants to demonstrate that many of our pursuits in life – and especially the work we choose, which eats up all our time – keep us from things that would really prove fulfilling and offer an emotionally rich existence.

“At this juncture, the reader may reflect on his or her own activities. What is keeping us from doing what we really want to do? In other words: life is, in fact, long, if only we know how to use our time.

“In the language of memory psychology: Live in such a way that your life is varied and emotionally rich; then you will live for a long time.”

Wittman and Seneca are a bit more concerned with longevity than I intended to discuss today, but Seneca's advice is an excellent prescription for successful ageing.

Or, I could have kept this a lot shorter by quoting Joseph Campbell: "Follow your bliss."


For me it's pretty basic I still wake up and glad to do it each morning. Seriously, one of the things about aging I like is not feeling like I have to succeed at anything so this krap about aging successfully just seems like more advertising trying to get into my pocket and my brain. Out damn (advertising) spot.

Yes, another good "food for thought" post, Ronni. Successfulness is perhaps a misnomer, because most success is measured after a goal is reached...and we have certainly reached old age successfully. But I agree that active is another word that I'd rather not have as a goal either. So I think I'll go for being. BEING. Like being aware. And maybe feeling fulfilled.

As I get older, I increasingly feel the need to tell younger people what I've learned. It doesn't work very well, but here's the most important message I wish I could get across...

When you see someone old, don't feel sorry for them. Don't imagine, oh, how awful, how terrible it must be, not to be young any more! That's wrong. It's not like that.

We're the lucky ones.

We get to have a last act in the story of of our lives. Many people don't! We're living, exploring, discovering. Yes, our brains and bodies are changing. We adapt to those changes, because that's what humans do. Humans are the most adaptable species on the planet. It's our biggest evolutionary advantage. Old age? We can handle it.

I agree with Celia. It's the only comment I've seen so far this morning, but it resonates with me. How are we to define "success" anyway? It's so subjective. What is its meaning and importance? Succeed at what? So many of what may be recognized as "successes" today are ephemeral and will have been completely forgotten about and inconsequential by tomorrow.

These days, I tend to think more that if one is mostly enjoying themselves, or at least feeling content, on most days, then that may not be seen by most as "success, " but, given all the kvetching and vapid and unhealthy activities people of all ages engage in most days, it seems to me to be quite an accomplishment.

Ar the end of the week, if I can look back and say that I have gotten meals served and dishes washed, laundry done, husband's medications dispensed, the garbage and recycling out on time, cats fed and groomed, groceries restocked, bills paid, yard reasonably maintained, had at least a little time for indulging my reading and Internet communication habits, communicated with my adult children, kept up with volunteer commitments, and otherwise stayed reasonably on top of the entropy that threatens to overtake us daily, I call it a pretty good week.

A few days ago I had an experience that shook me a bit, and I can't exactly explain why. I was at a thrift store. In the book department was a man who appeared to be quite old, I would guess in his 90's. He was dressed in a suit, with a jacket, pants, and white shirt, and appeared to be by himself. From a distance, he seemed to be doing quite well, well dressed, getting out and looking at books on his own at an advanced age. As I got closer, several details came into focus. He was holding books every which way, randomly talking out loud, most of which seemed to be a foreign language, but some of which was more understandable but not necessarily sensible. The hem of his jacket was ripped out and the lining exposed. In one of his pockets was what appeared to be a bottle of milk. As we drew closer, I noticed a sour smell coming from either the milk or the man himself, perhaps both. I kept an eye on him for a while, concerned that he may be in need of some sort of assistance. He was steady on his feet and seemed thoroughly enjoying his activity going from book to book. Eventually he took one to a table a few feet away, which seemed to me to be a place set up for the purpose of people to sit and read. At that point I I could see the title of the book, which was about natural healing and remedies. Again he turned the book sideways at times, and continued his audible but not intelligible comments from time to time. I decided that there was no need for intervention at that time, perhaps rationalizing my decision with the thought that, since the store was owned and managed by the local rescue mission, someone would intervene if it did become necessary. I was in a still in a quandary, but felt it would be intrusive, and perhaps insulting, for me to approach him and ask if he needed anything.

As I think about that recent encounter, I wonder what success would be considered for this man? Are we even asking the right questions or focusing on the important concerns?

Writing about successful aging and productive aging can get thorny and frustrating very quickly.

Yesterday's NY Times book section contained a short review of "100 Years," an anthology by Joshua Prager that pairs one literary excerpt with every age from birth to a century old.

The review concludes:

As the pages pass, there is an increasingly wistful sense of what time takes from us. "He was turning 62," Paul Theroux wrote in “The Lower River,” “not an age of life-altering shocks but only of subtle diminishments.” And near the end, at 94, we get the testimony of Hugh G. Flood from Joseph Mitchell’s “Old Mr. Flood”: “Except for the bottle, I always walked the straight and narrow; a family man, a good provider, never cut up, never did ugly, and I regret it.”

Dear Ronni: I so appreciate your blog.
I will be 64 in a month and feel that I have aged quite a bit in the past year. I am starting to look and feel like a senior citizen. Up until now, I was still very energetic and comparatively youthful looking. With the death of my husband and having watched and been a caregiver over the years (17 years worth) to other family members who were dealing with illnesses, getting old and eventually dying, I was not ready to have that be what I had to look forward to myself. Most of my contemporaries were getting ill and old. So I uprooted completely to explore a "new" life.
Ironically, age has caught up with me. I am feeling much more vulnerable and less sure on my feet. Of course this may just be the physical manifestation of the symbolic sense of not being sure on my feet in a totally new environment. If I do settle down where I have alighted, it may well be that I will regain my sure step and energy. But at this time, I watch in amazement as more and more ageing marks show themselves on my face. Whereas a couple of years ago, I would laugh when a younger person would offer to help me, now I quietly accept and even ask for the help.
I know we all age at different times and, having watched so many ageing people (I entered the field of servicing the ageing while caregiving. It made sense to me.), I was clear that, for me at least, the need to live much beyond my '70's was not a temptation. "None of us is getting out of here alive." So it may be, that along with the recognition that the idea of doing 20 or 30 more years is not something I necessarily want, my ageing genes have gone into overdrive. Then again, it may just be adjusting to a whole new life which is affecting me in ways that I have not fully recognized.
There is a part of me that is upset to look at my face and there is another part of me that is yelling out "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!" I kind of like the idea of moving into the elder defined population. So many things I no longer have to do! And that feels really good.
Of course I do not want to just waste whatever time I have left and hope that as I settle down in my new environment, I will find something that will benefit others as well as fulfill my sense of purpose.
Anyway, all of this in response to your, as usual, thought provoking explorations into this thing called ageing.

I work with a local clinic and aging patients on a project designed to “foster successful aging.” I too struggle with the label and with what it really means, just as I struggle with what to call old patients (we’re all ‘aging’ – the new phrase is ‘older patients’ - older than what/whom?).

But underneath the label is some good stuff. Providing info and a frame of reference for changes in balance, in memory, in mental state. For example, understanding that most of us can take steps to lessen our risk of falling. Here success is maintaining mobility as long as possible by avoiding or at least postponing a broken hip.

As I see it, successful aging means increasing your chances of avoiding things that can make your life more difficult and developing coping skills for what you can’t avoid.

It’s much closer to making the best of the challenges that aging present than striving for a facsimile of youth. Some folks can do this on their own. Others can benefit from some guidance.

I've just turned 80, and loved this article, although not so much the use of "successful".
I have a lovely family and good friends, and these last twelve or so years have lived in a vey friendly Sussex village (UK).
I'm definitely beginning to 'decline' - walk with a crutch, have a poor memory (and maybe a touch of the dreaded Alzheimer's). I live what might be called a "little" life - what fill my life are my garden, my close friends, reading and writing , and sitting and thinking. It really suits me.
Until my 60s it was very different: living in London, living in the tropics with my husband and kids (the kids were all born in N.NIgeria), teaching 'troubled and troublesome' school kids in London. I volunteered, I wrote, I was on the Parish Council here in the village.

I think a more suitable adjective would be "satisfactory". Satisfactory Ageing - doesn't that sound good? Along with the various aggravations of ageing, I do find it pretty satisfactory.

I'm 73, strong and in good health. It seems to me that our culture defines successful aging as looking younger than your years, or to put it bluntly, deny that you are the age you are and get away with it. This to me is the least successful way to age, and it takes a lot of effort besides. I would rather put my energy toward the things I love to do, like work in my studio or read or hang out with friends and family, or even (and perhaps best) have an unstructured day on my own.
It does sometimes shock me when I see myself in the mirror unexpectedly because I'm not smiling and looking bright. But then I say well hello old girl and even though the way I look doesn't necessarily match how I feel on the inside, that's just the way it is, so it is ok with me. I think when we can accept our physical selves as we are, and we simply keep on keepin' on, and stay engaged as much as we wish to, then that is success. I think we should all have one of those t-shirts that say "don't worry, be happy." That may be the whole point.
ps Why do you spell aging with an "e?" Is it a statement of some sort?

(Why do you spell aging with an "e?" I'm from the UK: In UK english, the e softens the sound of the G - so it sounds like the g in george rather than the g in gum

Successful aging is living one day at a time, remembering to be. Grateful, and let others (children) work out their own lives without a lot of comment from me. Always remember, someone else has a tougher situation.

Having been awake most of the night due to pain (not "discomfort" but PAIN) from two bad shoulders and a bad back, I'm in no frame of mind to embrace aging today! This isn't intended as a complaint, merely a statement of fact. Tomorrow may be different.

Up until about 1-1/2 years ago, I was pretty much doing as I always had, but not so much anymore. Successful aging? That's a very individual thing but has a lot to do with a reasonable degree of physical health in my view. I've avoided the major killers so far, which is good, but at 79 longevity for its own sake is no longer high on my agenda. It's more about putting one foot in front of the other and just keeping on.

Lola and Jo...
I spell ageing as is done in England, Australia and a few other places because the U.S. spelling - aging - has always looked to me like it should be spoken with a hard g and that makes mme nuts every time I look at it.

Although this blog is based in the U.S., it has a large international audience so I do not feel bound by my local spelling conventions especially when it looks as wrong to me as "aging" does. Not to mention that the international nature of the internet in general allows for adoption of various grammar and spelling as makes sense among us.

So it's a personal quirk. And who is going to say the the American spelling is more correct that the British or vice versa. Not me.

I so agree about the whole wretched Bucket List idea, especially the business about jumping out of an airplane. My husband who's been involved in aviation since he was 16 says that the only time he'd jump from an airplane would be if the engine quit and the cockpit filled with smoke.

I'm struck by the great differences I observe in people over 60 or so, whether I'm at Starbucks or out walking on a local nature trail or going to a neighborhood meeting. And I'm also struck by the difference between my mother at 60+ and me. There are so many factors to take into account. Her health was not as good as mine is now. Is that because of an earlier healthcare system or life's disappointments or both? Who can say?

I like Joanna Howard's suggestion of "Satisfactory Aging." I'm 73 and still getting used to people seeing me as "aging." There's nothing easy or welcomed about the physical changes, that's for sure. But I'm still at a point of wishing for many more years, and I imagine I'll stop wishing that when life is no longer satisfactory.
Ronni, I look forward to every entry you make in this blog. Thank you for your work!

My comment up there? Partly bravado, I admit. Sure, we humans can handle this 'old age' thing ... until a day comes, inevitably, for each of us, that we can't.

But, well. Nevertheless. We're each doing the best we can with what we've got left. Like, that old man in the bookstore? He was happy. What he was doing made sense to him, and as you've described the situation, Cathy, there wasn't any particular reason it needed to make sense to anyone else. So, good for him, I say! I hope when I'm 90 -- if I get that far -- I am able to enjoy visiting a bookstore.

Don't even think about calling yourself a senior citizen, Yvonne Behrens. At not yet 64, you are barely entering elderhood---a better term for the phenomenon. And to paraphrase one of those 60s sayings, be careful what you plan for. When I was 63 and taking my Social Security early, I thought no way am I going to live to collect enough to make waiting worthwhile. Nearly twenty years later I'm 81 and still alive if not kicking. I didn't plan for this and I certainly don't want to live past my expiration date as a mentally fully functioning human, but I find there are lots of things I want to stay around for, especially now that we are in the middle of the most important Presidential election of my life.

You are so right about old age and "freedom!" Think of the panty hose you're not wearing, the roots you don't have to worry about "showing," the high heels that aren't crippling you or putting life and especially limbs in danger. When we get old, I think in a way we come full circle. When I was very young and pretty, I could just get out of bed, throw on some jeans and sneakers, run my fingers through my hair and be ready for life. Now that I am old and don't give a shit how I look, I can pretty much do the same thing. I am as beautiful as I can be considering everything, so that does indeed spell freedom, doesn't it?

Ronni, your posts elicit comments that just keep getting better.

I enjoy coming back at the end of the day, to see what everyone wrote.

My thoughts/philosophy about ageing:

Cherish each day, treasure what you've got, keep your toenails clipped, do something good for others when you have an opportunity.

Accept and listen to your body.

Hot baths are great stress relievers.

Be proud of what you have accomplished, and what you will accomplish.

Enjoy the freedom that comes with being an elder.

Before falling asleep and before getting up in the morning, I meditate about everything that's good in my life, and what I need to do that day.

I tell myself this day will be good, but if the day goes all Thunderdome, tomorrow is a whole new day.

I'm joining the "Successful Ageing" group..and BTW, my spell check wants me to spell it aging apparently-but aging is how I've spelled it up to now and I'm not about to change.

Ronni, as others have noted, you always give us food for thought in your posts. It may be that you were dissatisfied with your blog post today, but I felt at a las because I had a busy day at the Food Bank and couldn't read your blog post until this evening. I find it rather amazing that I've come to rely on your monday morning blog post to set my week off to a good start.

Like Doctafill I also meditate morning and evening..and evenings I try to do 15 minutes of yoga to stretch those muscles that hurt from the activity. I especially applaud his
"Enjoy the freedom that comes with being an elder"..and I believe I'll calligraphy that onto a nice piece of parchment and hang it in my bathroom so I can read it every morning! Thanks Fill, for that concise bit of reflection.

My bit of obvious aging is the bruising I have on my arms and hands..the skin is crepy beyond control and bruises easily so that after a day in the yard, as I did yesterday, I end up with wrinkled and purple splotched arms from even slight wacks on my body with a rake handle or a brush with a rose..which I have planted 20 of in the past 2 years in our new front yard. Along with 100 iris rhizomes, and about 50 dahlia tubers which are just starting to show greenery...I so love the early spring and aging gives me time to putter in the yard when I want to. And lately thats all I want to do!

Be well, Ronni and keep on writing. I enjoy your posts so much-and you have so much to say!

Spring Hugs to all of you on the "list serve " to use an antiquated word.

Elle-Ronnies neighbor in Beaverton

I appreciate Cathy's comments and will use them to serve as a reminder when I have one of those days when I'm feeling that I'm just taking up space and not accomplishing anything and then add Joanna's comment on "Satisfactory Ageing". That should snap me out of it.

Thanks Ladies, and Ronni for another thought-provoking post.

Satisfactory aging, I like it. It is individual and speaks to each journey as defined by each person. As we have all come to realize, many factors determine how we age, but when we look for a common definition, how better to measure our aging than to determine if it is satisfactory to ourselves. We, as individuals, are the only ones that are truly able to define and decide our process of aging. Such great insights from so many comments.

"Successful aging" and its close cousin "wellness" were devised by professional gerontologists to comfort themselves. I know because I was once one of them. Now that I am on the cusp of 80, I understand that the need to cheer themselves up about their own prospects influenced the citing of hopeful statistics.

There will always be examples of the 100 year old who is "sharp as a tack" or the 95 year old who is establishing schools in underserved areas. And judicious amounts of kale, pilates, social interaction, and skin cream Do help. But not totally. Not forever.

I applaud all the comments to this wonderful post.

I love Joanna Howard's description: >>I live what might be called a "little" life - what fill my life are my garden, my close friends, reading and writing , and sitting and thinking. <<

I see that my life is getting "littler" as I get older, and that is quite alright by me.

Am I aging successfully? I don't know. I am still coloring my hair and putting on make-up. But at 71, I recognize that it is not fooling any one.

I exercise every day and am happy that I can walk and run and jump when I need to crossing a street or avoiding a fall.

I try to learn things every day and have newly acquired thoughts and comments to add to conversations I have with others.

I feel that I am doing what I can to be considered successfully aging but.... Peggy Lee comes to mind here--- I guess I don't feel successful, but I might be satisfied---

I think the post and comments are very instructive and require no comment from me, but I will give one. Many proponents of "successful aging" are also people that feel that many elders are a drag on the economy and therefore care for ourselves celebrate the healthy and active elders. However, none of us have total control over health or finances as we age. Bad genes and stock market fiascos have an effect on us all. The older we get the fewer options we have to care for ourselves financially.

I'm sure that the vast majority of readers of this blog are caring for their health as best they can, but finances can effect our ability to do that as well. So exercise as best you are able, eat well, but moderately and stay involved in life to the extent that your introversion or extroversion allow.

OK "extraversion" is correct--this is what I get for not carefully proofreading.

My take on "successful ageing" is staying in the healthiest state of mind, which you clearly illustrate with your comment about personal appearance and the media's obsession with clinging to a youthful look. If I am focused on what gives me pleasure and feeds my soul, and if I can steer away from what the media and the world at large is saying is "successful," then I am much more likely to feel satisfied and content at the end of the day.

This has turned out to be a great post, which has stimulated some very insightful comments. That in itself is successful ageing on everyone's part.
The "big three" referred to at the start of your blog are only helpful building blocks, but a fulfilled life is surely about much more.
For me it is about continuing to make a contribution to others and through that still feeling valued yourself.

Thanks, Pilgrim, for bringing up the matter of finances in old age. Having enough money is something I consider vital for a good old age, and unfortunately, I have very little.

Life intervenes at the worst times! My middle-aged son became so depressed he was unable to work. He moved in with me, and we live on my bit of Social Security plus a few hundred dollars per month. The Social Security was adequate for one (me) but it's close to impossible trying to stretch things to cover two of us.

However, however! Unexpected things do happen, et cetera, so pretty soon ACCEPTANCE becomes the name of the game. But it doesn't change my opinion that ample money is a necessity for a decent old age. I am 85 and sorry I don't have it.


Successful aging is very personal. What is true for one, may not be so for another.

But I guess it would pretty much be like being able to drag oneself out of bed early in the morning, with a smile on one's face and say, "Thank you I am alive," and then get on with the rest of the day, whatever it is, with enthusiasm, not scorn.

Successful living is taking one day at a time and making the best of it. It should not be wasted on dwelling on aches and pains (there are plenty), but on the roof that needs, fixing, on the lawn that needs moving. of your golf or tennis date with your buddies.

There is no standard to to gauge whether one is successfully aging or not because happiness and contentment cannot be measured.

I agree with what you are saying and really like the last line, "The first and most important thing to remember about growing old is this: there is no wrong way to do it." All these advice books and articles kind of make me crazy too. :)

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