What Does Successful Aging Really Mean?

When we talk about “successful aging,” many Americans think of models in senior product advertisements who—apart from their silver hair—seem to be untouched by age as they pose on the golf course, walk on the beach or dance the night away.

But few of us retain our physical and cognitive health indefinitely. Most of us will deal with increasing disability as the years advance, and while disease and disability aren’t “a normal part of aging,” they are challenges we are likely to face. According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 40 percent of people older than 65 have at least one disability.

A researcher from University of Louisville recently urged that we reconsider our preconceptions of “successful aging.” Nursing professor Valerie Lander McCarthy, Ph.D., RN, collaborated with a visiting professor from China to develop a different definition of positive aging.

McCarthy says that it is unrealistic to measure “positive aging” solely on physical and mental capacity. She says that if they don’t fall into the 10 percent with exceptional physical and cognitive health, “older adults feel guilty when they get sick because they think they are not succeeding—and in the U.S., succeeding is important.”

McCarthy’s work with Shandong University’s Ji Hong appeared in the Journal of Transcultural Nursing. The team said, “Transcendence—a sense of meaning, well-being and life satisfaction—is the best predictor of positive aging. The concept involves relationships, creativity, contemplation, introspection and spirituality.”

McCarthy has worked with interventions to increase this type of positive aging. These include encouraging “a time for quiet solitude in natural beauty followed by a discussion about a person’s outlook, helping to develop a broadened perspective on life or a feeling of being an integral part of the cycle of life.” McCarthy says storytelling can also be beneficial.

“Successful aging is important for the rapidly growing population of older adults and their families and caregivers,” says McCarthy.  She urges more attention to interventions that promote a sense of successful aging, and reminds us:  “It is also significant for society as a whole, which will bear the burden of unprecendented demands on health and aging services.”

Source: IlluminAgeAgeWise reporting on study from University of Louisville [optional link to: http://tcn.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/05/16/1043659614526257.full.pdf?ijkey=ifzmJkLq4agorci&keytype=ref]