ELDER MUSIC: The Forgotten Angel
A TGB READER STORY: Too Close for Comfort

Are You Aging Successfully?

Tap any given expert on old age and you'll get a definition of successful aging that goes something like this one:

“The term successful aging was made popular in 1987, when the scientists John Wallis Rowe and Robert Kahn published an influential book entitled Successful Aging,” writes Alan D. Castel, in Forbes.

“Rowe and Kahn stated that successful aging involved three main factors: (1) being free of disability or disease, (2) having high cognitive and physical abilities, and (3) interacting with others in meaningful ways.”

Since 1987, others have quibbled with that definition but whatever else they include – e.g. meaningfulness, work you enjoy, personal happiness – they all fall back on that big three: freedom from disease, high cognition and physical capabilities, and social engagement.

If Rowe's and Kahn's is the definitive definition, I have failed aging by two-thirds. On the minus side, I have two debilitating diseases that limit my physical activity. On the plus side, I think my mind is doing fine but who knows, and I have more than enough social life even within the limits of my diseases and the pandemic.

Successful aging has always seemed to be a phony construct to me. My first reaction, whenever the phrase turns up, is “As opposed to what – failed aging? That seems to be the point of the people to trade in this idea – to force a pass/fail grade on aging.

None of the “experts” that I've read have anything to say about failing aging.

It doesn't come up directly even though it is obliquely implied. But I suspect they are thinking of me if anyone brings up the question.

The medical people who discuss successful aging stress that it begins at an early age. Here are some of the predictors taken from a variety of sources:

Happy marriage
Higher levels of education
Purpose in life
Physical health
Don't drink alcohol to excess
Don't smoke cigarettes

Me? Divorced. High school graduate, no college. No discernible purpose in life. Smoked cigarettes for years. So I lose on every point except physical health (when younger) and alcohol consumption.

As to those three original indicators for a successful old age, one or the other of those two diseases I have will kill me before too long, and my physical capabilities are severely limited now. I can still care for myself but it's hard even to take the trash out to the bins.

That sounds like a good definition of failed aging. And yet...

And yet, I'm fine with my old age. I refuse to say I am aging successfully because I don't believe in the idea. (Do people have successful childhoods? Or are there people to fail childhood? Do some fail teen years or adulthood? I haven't ever seen those other stages of life generally defined as failure.)

A lot of what is written about successful aging comes from people who haven't yet reached old age and although I doubt they would see it this way, they tend to believe that old people should behave like younger adults – 30, 40, 50 or so.

At other times, they deal in stereotypes of old people. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and psychologist whose most recent book, Successful Aging, was published early this year, told a PBS interviewer that it is difficult for old people to change their views or to look at something differently:

”...you have to fight that,” he said. “I think we have to avoid complacency as we get older because we do tend to get set in our ways.

“We tend to want to look at things the same way. We want to go to the same restaurant that we know is going to give us a good meal. We want to hang out with the same friends who we know we're not going to make us feel bad about ourselves.

“But we have to fight that because the influx of new ideas and challenging our conventional modes of thinking is important brain food, not just our individual health but the health of the larger community.”

Well, where to start? Set in our ways? Let's take Levitin's example: until the pandemic changed all our lives, a friend and I had lunch together every week at the same restaurant. How is that possibly an indication of unsuccessful aging?

Good friends sharing a meal at a restaurant with food we liked, and some quiet time together? That sounds like a plus in life to me.

Further, I wonder how strange a person needs to be to assume meeting someone new would result in him or her saying something bad about me? If there are those who don't like to meet new people, I doubt that is the reason.

And complacency? Ask any old person about the constant adaptations to daily life we must make due to age-related changes such as balance issues, dropping things, reduced energy and stamina, pain from a disease such as arthritis or cancer, etc. etc.

Oh wait, I forgot – having a disease or two means you have not aged successfully.

I don't buy it. “It” being the entire idea of successful aging. I think we age, period. Some people try their damndest to look younger than they are and usually wind up looking foolish. There are others who complain endlessly about how much they dislike getting old and just become bores.

One way or another, we all grow old. We do it sometimes at wildly different rates of change - some with greater physical burdens than others and I think as often as not, that is the luck of the draw, a bit of genetics and, as in my case, too many cigarettes.

That's water under the bridge. I can't change it now. And my two diseases, whatever the so-called experts say, do not make me an unsuccessful old person.

Life is precious and at this end of it, too short to waste time chasing a make-believe success. If you have limitations, let them be your guide. Enjoy the things you can. Honor these late years by living as fully as you desire and are capable of.

And do not believe anyone who tries to label your old age a success or failure.

Comments

I like your attitude! Just the idea that they use the word "successful" rather than "happy" or "fulfilling" tells us a lot about where these experts are coming from. We live in a striving culture so it makes sense that a lot of people would want retirement to involve intellectual or social accomplishments. But if we want to be happy and content . . . well, different strokes for different folks. There are plenty of happy people who are not social butterflies, who may not be that smart -- and who among us has perfect health?

Having surpassed the average lifespan for humans (72.6 years), with my mind intact and few worries, I consider myself to have aged successfully. Not perfectly mind you, but well enough to know things could be much worse.

Here! Here!

What a ridiculous idea - as if aging is a test you can pass or fail. Your response is “right on!”
I love your column so much and look forward to each one. I don’t know you personally but will miss you when you’re gone...

Love to read your comments...on aging or anything else you desire to share. <3

I am reminded of a word I coined as a kid for anything I found incomprehensibly stupid. "Successful aging" is dumbellious.

The opinion of someone who who has not yet "aged" or who is at the beginning of such a process, say under 60, is kind of suspect. When a nonagenarian or centenarian gives their opinion on successful aging, I might sit up and listen. Although the few nonagenarians and centenarians that I know (one of each) mostly shrug their shoulders and wonder at their own longevity because they just lived their lives as they went along. The pass/fail thing is very suspect. We have been indoctrinated by educators to think that there is such a thing, at least for living beings. I think we can grade repairs on a pass/fail system, even human repairs such as hip replacement, but to judge a life as having passed or failed? How do we grade poets, scholars and statesmen/women etc who make a lasting impact on humanity but never see old age? They failed? And friends who died in their fifties or sixties, are they failures? Rubbish.

👍👏

Amen and thank you!

So glad to hear the good doctor has it all figured out at the ancient age of 63. If he were 20 years older I might pay more attention. Maybe. I'll decide what aging well looks like.
Well done again and thank you Ronni.

Jan

I agree with you wholeheartedly! Your words really apply to all stages of life. 👏

We are all temporarily successfully aging, and then because all will become disabled due to accident/disease, eventually old age any of which will take its debilitating toll, but death is definitely permanently disabling..so one of those or all will eventually catch up with us…

Please accept the above as marble orchard humor from a 72.5 year old beginner.....

I fondly recall this: “Don’t Complain about growing old, many are not given the privilege!” It IS truly a privilege and it happens way too quickly! I was just 30 yesterday!!!

I loved your thoughts on "successful aging", Ronni! Being successful implies the opposite - failing....and that, to me, doesn't make sense at all in the realm of aging. I just mentioned this to my son (45 yrs. old), as I am visiting him and his family right now, and he suggested the term "aging gracefully." I might add to that "aging gracefully and at one's own pace."

When looking at books on aging 12 years ago when my mother turned 85, I was appalled by the pronouncements of many so called experts. Your postings on research and your candid and honest descriptions of aging helped me to understand what my mother was going through much better and it is helping me be positive and honest about my own aging process. Thank you for all you do.

It's a good reminder that a doctor has not failed in his duty when his patient is sick, nor when they die. A gerontologist said the ancient Chinese would pay the doctors when they were well, but not when they got sick, evidence of the doctor's failure. I think the only thing worth measuring is quality of life. And that really can only be measured by the value system of each individual.

Observations like these by Leviton of "successful" aging are based on narrow, predictable and highly subjective thinking. As usual, there are already many comments here reflecting my feelings, and I won't bother repeating those sentiments. I will though, suggest that fans of John Cleese look up an interview that was on NPR a few days ago. Cleese's dry wit and sardonic humor serve him well in this reflection on a question he asked his therapist 15 years ago regarding the percentage of people who really know what they're doing. Apparently the majority of people who make it to old age do that in spite of only about 10-15% of them knowing what they're doing. So much of life is a crapshoot, and luck is just a four-letter. Thank you for keeping it real Ronni.


Yep, another "phony construct." Good choice of words.Being successful, not ever my goal..........being good at what I did (good in my terms of course) was important, making what most would not consider a living, a necessity. My idea of success was working like crazy doing what I loved, being mostly happy, living close to Universe and Mystery. I'd rather be kind, loving, compassionate to myself and others than successful. And how rude, to knock a huge percentage of elders off the success list for lack of perfect health! I never would have thought of you, Ronnie, at any point, as not aging in a deep, generous, interested, beautiful way! Much better than mere success.
Thanks for the new word, Wendl.........dumbellious, that's fun!

Thank you Ronni!

Just what the doctor ordered for a very different first Monday in August.
Thank you one more time for your light on the path.
Ann

Thank you Ronni!

Just what the doctor ordered for a very different first Monday in August.
Thank you one more time for your light on the path.
Ann

Yes Yes Yes Yes to everything everybody has said.

Wendl, love the word dumbellious. I will spread it about.

Truer words never spoken. You always nail it. Aging is not a test. How would you get an “A”? Maybe by not dying. Everyone eventually experiences physical limitations and deterioration. That’s all part of it. Unfortunately you don’t usually die disease free unless it’s an accident.

Excellent post Ronni!

People who don’t age well are those who die young, children, teens, 20 somethings, military who die in wars, blah blah blah. They don’t age well, they don’t age at all. Due to LIFE.

These books are ridiculous. The ONLY criteria for aging well is the lesson of Letting Go. It’s a requirement for aging period.

Also, drink water, drink wine, eat popcorn, walk, sleep, poop. If you’re still doing any or all those in your 60s, 70s, 80s, you’re successfully aging. 😆😂🤦🏻‍♀️

Attitude. Attitude is everything. And babe, ya got attitude!

Altho now that I think about it, one might consider my ex-mother-in-law's aging unsuccessful. Despite reasonable health, mobility, cognitive function and friends as well as many opportunities for activity and stimulation, she basically sat in her apartment in the dark for ten years, "just waiting to die." Again. Attitude!

I live in a small city that used to rival Niagara Falls for 'newly weds and nearly deads'. I moved here at the ripe old age of about 30, and remember walking on the city sidewalk having to dodge OldPeople shaking my head in frustration. I also recall sunbathing at the waterfront in next to nothing wondering at the Old People bundled up in sweaters and scarves, and being amazed.
It seems that we are what we are at whatever age we find ourselves. It’s the rare young person who can truly empathize with a person of advancing years.
My own selfish reason for following your blog, Ronni, is that you and your other followers have taught me so much about being older, and for the most part, making the best of it.
And it’s delightful to be content with my old car, my comfortable shoes, and my reduced consumption lifestyle, in so many ways.
I love you all!

Yes, you do - always nail it!

I'll hit 76 this month and have decided to MOVE. I've lived in the ADU behind my eldest son's house for nearly 10 years, watched my granddaughter grow to a pre-teen, and love my d-i-l. But, it is time for another challenge and thanks to my youngest son and his wife, I get to move to a super duper condominium, 7 floors up, in the Pearl District of Porland OR. WooHoo.

A little apprehension, and a lot of anticipation. This will be the first time living on my own since before marriage with no one to be responsible to or responsible for. Complete independence at the ripe old age of 76. Even with COPD and all attendant aches and pains, I should manage another 10 years and I'm looking forward to my dotage!!

If there is any success here, it's completely due to my lovely sons, I'm just enjoying the ride.

Once again, thank you for ALL your words of wisdom, you are THE BEST.
o/

"Successfully aging" What a load.
I've made choices, done things, and generally failed at living with alarming frequency. Ask any of my ex-wives or children.
Aging? That I've been able to manage to almost everyone's surprise and, probably, the disappointment of a few.

I too, find it interesting that younger people attempt to predict what is to come. The younger people are, the most certainty they have or crave in their lives. Makes sense to me, with so much of life ahead of them. We all, to varying degrees want to know what comes next. Yet for me, as I go 'round the seasons, I find myself befriending life's ambiguity...and there's so much of it. I have an increased need for solitude or the company of an intimate few. I crave inner peace and self-reflection. More Inner focus now, less outward striving. It is the season I am in.

What a gift you are. Your commenters too.

Everybody, no matter the color or sex, ages. To me a successful old age equates with happiness. As long as one is content, one can be 10 or 100 -- it doesn't matter. As we age, there are more physical restrictions. For instance, I will not now dive into water from a 50' cliff like I once did. However, at 10 I couldn't dive from that 50' cliff although I would have been more resilient. So, am I growing older or like "Benjamin Button" growing younger? B

I laughed when I saw your title in my email. My silent response was, "I'm still alive, aren't I?" Aging successfully. What a hoot. Those not aging successfully are dead.

If you're alive, you're successful: you've survived.
Good grief. How can a particular age be lived successfully? Are there successful babies? Teens? And anyway, how can successful aging look like middle age or youth? Aging is about being old. I am enjoying being old, having the perspective that allows me to enjoy the present moment, despite the diminishing of physical, and mental strength. I love not being employed, having accumulated many good, diverse friends, being in control of what my life is like, as much as that is ever possible.
I thoroughly enjoy your blog Ronni. We're on a similar page about life and aging. Thank you for inspiring me with the way you make the best of what yu've been landed with.

Yup. I especially liked the Leviton quote: “Successful aging” mansplained. Get the hell off my lawn, kid!

I am not someone who often looks face to face with a Ph.D. and says, "baloney!" But I will.

I wonder if you were to ask anyone who knew Stephen William Hawking if they thought he was a success. There was a guy who had disabilities, poor health and lacked interaction with others.

And, too, I seem to be the only one who believes their concept of success is hazy, vague, and ill-defined. Determining one's success has always been an individual's process of establishing goals (as simply as they may be) and systematically and successfully accomplishing them.

Finally, success as I believe it, we age as we live, and as we live we age, and at the same time maintain our established lifestyle preferences.

We became what we thought about ourselves. What more could you ask for? Live life as you have for decades. You are a success.

(Where's my "I'm OK, You're OK" book? )

Another book to not waste my time reading if I were so inclined to feel the need to seek direction on how to lead my life. Does anybody ever experience that author’s full criteria for a successful life? Since they ultimately die, they’ve failed, haven't they? I’ll settle for continuing to be alive as a success. However, one person’s view of what constitutes success may be viewed by another as a failure, so its quite an individual matter of perspective, I suppose.


P

Yes to all the above! In the middle of a pandemic, with some managed health issues I can gratefully say that I’m content. If I had done things a little differently when younger, I might be in better shape, but I could also have been hit by a bus. I’m still here, I’m getting old, and I’m happy. Success!

First of all we need to define "success". Getting out of bed without pain in my legs one morning is success to me. Being still in the business of editing and tax work, though a smaller business now, is success to me. So I can be a cranky old ranting crone from time to time, that is success in my book too. I am not going quietly into that good night, a martyr to the cause of suffering like my foremothers.

Passing my driver exam given to elders here, is success.

Hanging off an air-balloon to celebrate my 80th birthday in a few years, suggested as a great experience by my younger brothers would be a huge FAIL. I just will not put myself through that kind of terror and show off to the world. But many would call that a success.

I see an 85 yo, crippled, trudge about 100 yards down the road every day, back and forth maybe 6 times, pausing, regrouping, then moving on. Now she's a success.

XO
WWW

My parents sure weren’t successful at aging, Dad died at age 63 from bone cancer, Mom at age 64 from uterine cancer. But they raised 6 kids, now in our 50s-60s and still here, so I’d hardly call them failures.

Dear Ronni and Friends, those smiley, smug "experts" may have clocked alot of air miles, $peaking here and there, but these judgy people need to get out more - and see how real people deal with unforeseen situations. Of course the "exprrts" respond with a snooty you-should-have-planned - like they're the Lord Himself.

i remember in grade school when a teacher told us kids that planning is good and smart, but things don't always go according to plan.

Ronnie, you're a winner 100% in my book and that's the book that counts for me. Keep at it, sister.

Long life? Good life?
Pretty much a matter of luck, it seems to me.

Successful aging: that phrase is a bad joke. Ranks right up there with AARP's "disrupting" age. Gag me. You have really lived your life Ronni! How many people haven't while trying to be "successful" at this or that. You rock Ronni.

Spot on, Ronnie! I hate seeing the supposedly successful agers doing skydiving, scaling mountains, etc. in ARP. It rankles! Successful aging is our attitude, our happiness, our acceptance and at the end of the day, or beginning, to approach it with a sense of peace and appreciation for days lived and lost. That is us, our self perception ...not the body as that will do as bodies do, decline, get OLD.

Cheers to all you successful agers!

Karin

What a blessing you are Ronnie. Thanks for your energy and sharing your journey with us. If we could just wrap you in a warm hug and say, all will be well and gentle times for you sweet soul. For the energy you put out, sending you warm light and love in return. You've touched me more than you could know. A 50 something starting a new life chapter and inspired by you! With love from the other side in Canada. Sending you good energy and love. Be gentle on yourself, you don't have to compare yourself to anyone else, you are loved and so appreciated. May peace, grace and love walk with you.

If dying means you haven't aged successfully then we're all doomed to failure! People I consider to be not "aging successfully" are those who undergo numerous plastic surgeries so they can delude themselves they still look "young".

To me, successful aging is the same as successful youth. It’s living life, to the extent possible, on your own terms. Interestingly enough, it is much easier to live the way you want to live once you are free of jobs and bosses and competition (sexual, professional).

With a middle finger raised to Dr Levitin, I would also maintain that having the same friends, eating in the same restaurant, and being quite “complacent” are all time savers. If I don’t have to be searching out new friends or places to eat or new experiences I can give more time to thinking and reading and writing and talking—all activities that are more pleasurable to me than the idea of sky-diving or running marathons.

I say a fervent “amen” to dumping those aging “experts” who haven’t even done it yet so have no idea what it’s all about. In fact, at no age will they (or I or you) be an expert on aging. We all do it in our own way on our own time schedule.

A few of my immediate family died before they saw 50, I am happy and relieved to be an aged person however I got here.My aging has been eventful and turbulent and mostly unassisted,I am happy to be here ,see and hear-simply partake in the fest and quest of life.
Thank you for standing up for all of us who are looked at by some as not so successful old folk,

Right on target, Ronni. The term "successful aging" infuriates me for all the above reasons, even though I'm personally doing my best to stay engaged and contented for the next two decades. (So far so good, but then I'm only 80.) For ages I've worried about the way the young, no, everyone, is endlessly instructed that they must must must be "successful" at whatever they do. Yet by even the simplest standards, everyone cannot be successful and the opposite of success is a big fat shaming depressing painful FAIL. Sometimes I see our individualistic anyone-can-do-anything mentality as a kind of institutionalised bullying. And of course, as several people have pointed out, that means that dying is failing. Give me a break!! We all do our best with the cards we are dealt.

I needed to hear this. I have such gratitude for you and your wisdom.

Ronni--

I really am in awe as usual when I read you thoughts on subjects.

You create platforms to ponder and discuss that most people's minds do not even recognize as being something they should question.

What a gift you are to those of us who have found you and can share in the thoughts that wander around in your head!!

Wrong word used: should not be "successful" aging but "lucky" aging. So few people are lucky with aging and it must not be suggested to view that as 'unsuccessful". Unlucky, yes, we're all used to that. Successful is when you bend like a willow to your unlucky circumstances, adapt, adjust and accept -- that's successful.

I have no problem with the concept of «success » as long as one gets to define it for ones’ self. Let’s not waste time hating on the aging experts. Nearly all went through a system that measured success in super- conventional ways. They bought it.

Ronni, you do not bow to convention and that is one of your outstanding qualities.

So very well said. I get so weary of being told that if you aren't doing thus-and-so, or being thus-and-so, you're somehow failing at being alive. We all make mistakes, sometimes we learn from them and sometimes we don't. And sometimes what happens to us is just the luck of the draw. And some of us are simply fortunate to be alive.

Harrumph. Last year at 65, I was diagnosed with wet macular degeneration of my left eye. Began Avastin injection into that eyeball. You get one every 5-6 weeks until the retinologist feels you are improving and the length of time between injections lengthens. Last May, those shots were 11-12 weeks apart. Alas, last week I had to start injections in my right eye as well.
Doc won't give me both injections on the same day, so even when the R eye can go to the 11-12 weeks, I will get an injection in a single eye, the next injection a week later.

It's not excrutiating - they put numbing drops in your eyes. However, there is a significant uncomfortable pressure during the injection for about 6 seconds.

Wet MD is a fast diagnosis to blindness. And it tends to be familial. My great grandfather, my paternal grandmother, my dad, and two of his brothers all were legally blind at about 60. None of the them lived long enough to benefit from the injections.

So, I am aging...ok. Avoiding blindness is a positive!

In my opinion, if researchers have not been 1. curious and 2. compassionate and 3. included what their "research subjects" think about success as they define success for their research subjects, *they've* failed.

(I do think, sometimes, people do badly at "life tests" - rarely can we know that they failed them, though.)

I also find it ironic that eliminating unnecessary choices is a huge-genius-plus in the "success/business/marketing" world (see: Steve Jobs and his personal uniform) but apparently a Failure when seniors do it? That said, I also think that it's *enjoyable* to occasionally try things and would endorse it, on average. But only to the level that a specific person enjoys it! And only in the realms that a specific person would enjoy it.

Excellent comments and post, successful ageing is of course nonsense as life is two chaotic and unpredictable for anyone to offer anything more than a basic prescription .unfortunately people latch onto fads and thought cults as the try to outwit the reaper..

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