It is no secret that more of us are now living well into our 70s, 80s and even 90s. The average life expectancy of people in Canada has grown by approximately 10 years over the past 50 to 82 years of age. As people are living longer, they are also working longer and leading generally better and more meaningful lives. Improved nutrition and healthcare as well as an overall better quality of living are the prime reasons for this. Despite people generally living longer there is still great disparity between how different people age and live their lives. For every individual who experiences the aging process as enjoyable and fulfilling, there is likely someone who finds the experience challenging or unsettling. As the population gets older we must respond and aim to explore what contributes to successful aging.
Successful aging has been defined by several psychological theorists and researchers and is usually characterised by healthy physical, mental and social well-being in later life. Often research focuses on generating numbers and ignores the experience of aging itself. As such an area of research has emerged that involves asking ordinary people about their experiences of aging and evaluating their responses as a whole. By examining the reported thoughts, attitudes and feelings of ordinary older adults we can gain relevant and practical information that can provide rich and alternative insights into the overall process of aging for future generations.
One recent study by researcher Galit Nimrod and Idit Ben-Shem did just that. Nimrod and Ben-Shem’s study involved a sample of young adults interviewing over 200 older adults that were aged between 65 and 92 years old. These interviews were framed so that they included the younger adults asking the older adults for one or two pieces of advice that would help them as an older adult in the future. The researchers then collated all of their data in order to examine which patterns and themes were common for successful aging among their group of older adults.
Overall Nimrod and Ben-Sham found that three distinct themes surfaced:
1) Early preparation is key. The older adult group emphasised the importance of investing for your future early on as a key factor for successful aging later on. When further examined, early investment could be divided into four distinct groups: health (e.g. maintaining healthy nutrition and regular physical activity, keeping the brain busy and refraining from alcohol and tobacco throughout the lifespan), relationships (e.g. developing meaningful relationships with spouses, family and friends), self (e.g. education, “me-time”, collecting memories) and material investments (e.g. gaining economic soundness, housing). In terms of both material investments and investment in the self, the group stressed the common importance of establishing independence as a significant factor successful and adaptive aging.
2) Preserving qualities from your youth contributes to better well-being later on. The older adult group identified that maintaining and adapting strengths as you grow older can contribute to successful aging. Again a number of strengths or qualities continuously emerged as more important than others. These five strengths were: health, independence, appearance, a young state of mind and pastimes. Similar to the earlier theme that highlighted the significance of establishing healthy behaviours and independence early on, this theme highlighted the importance of maintaining them or learning to adapt where needs be (e.g. adjusting expectations but still striving to maintain both as effectively as possible).
Interestingly the women in the group in particular advocated the importance of maintaining a good appearance in order to facilitate continuing to feel good in yourself and to promote social appreciation. The group advised that keeping a young state of mind through retaining a positive attitude and interest in life as well as avoiding negative emotions was particularly pertinent for successful aging. Finally the group emphasized the value of engaging in old and new pastimes such as hobbies, get-togethers and volunteering as a way of enjoying and utilising the spare time that comes with older age. They also attributed that remaining engaged in these activities can help facilitate companionship and help maintain cognitive and physical health.
3) Internal resources are a key factor in coping with aging. The older adult group identified a number of internal resources that they felt were required for preservation and coping successfully with the aging process. These were again divided into a number of subgroups: positive thinking and optimism, acceptance, faith and spirituality, and living in the present. According to the group, Positive thinking and optimism are reflected by making the best of old age and appreciating what one has while retaining a good sense of humour. In terms of living in the present the group stressed the importance of letting go of regrets about the past and avoiding anxieties about the future.
Overall Nimrod and Bensham’s study provides relevant insight into the overall aging process. Their decision to base their study on first-hand accounts of how to grow old successfully provides further testament to the role of a number of factors including health and economic stability in successful aging. What is significant about this particular study is the fact that the researchers found that the older adults considered successful aging to be a life-long process that depends on engagement at each life-stage.
If we consider the three themes highlighted above, they are each associated with distinct times in the lifespan. While there is undoubtedly some overlap, the first theme which is generally characterised by attaining certain benefits, can be consider as a preparation stage which begins in early adulthood and may continue for many years. The second theme which centres on maintaining and adapting qualities or strengths from our youth clearly represents a preservations stage which occurs as we begin to grow older. Finally the third theme which emphasises the importance of a number of internal attributes that contribute to coping with the aging process, represent a resilience stage in the lifespan which occurs later on as people turn to internal strengths to buffer the losses and difficulties associated with aging. This model for successful aging highlights the importance of early and continued awareness and consideration for what we need to grow old successfully and how to maintain it. By thinking about our futures early on we can be prepared for whatever changes that might unfold.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.