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:
Higher levels of education
Purpose in life
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.