How do you and I know if we are aging “successfully”? Especially when different people define successful aging in such very different ways. Unfortunately, some researchers have described successful aging as freedom from any illness or disability in people over 60. Those over 60 who have physical or mental changes have “failed” at aging. From this point of view everyone fails eventually since each of us will inevitably die.
Popular culture has picked up on this flawed idea. For some years the “Successful Aging Movement” has been telling us that if we each take proper care of ourselves, we can postpone or prevent disability, decline and maybe even death. The message I get when I look at their material is that I will have failed if I don’t look like Suzanne Somers when I am 95.
But, when researchers ask the elderly how they define successful aging it is clear that many old people see it differently. To the elderly, successful aging starts not with holding on to the past but with embracing a new reality.
As caregiver for my 91 year old father, I was regularly stopped short by the difference between his feelings and mine about his situation. Putting myself in his place, I would imagine that he must be miserable. But when I asked him how he was, he would always say, “I’m fine.”
I never quite believed him. But I came to believe that I had to try to accept what he said and set aside my own adult presumptions. He always liked opera, so we took him to several local productions thinking that it was “good” for him to get out. Soon we learned that he was really happier sticking closer to home, so we adjusted and played more poker at his residence.
I worked as hard as I could on getting past my preconceptions and prejudices about old age, but sadly Dad died before I gained much skill in seeing things from his point of view. The biggest thing that I learned while he was still alive is that my adult stage of psychological development is not the be all and end all. There is a stage beyond adulthood that is called variously “gerotranscendence,” the Ninth Stage and “individuation.” This stage–one that many elders achieve if not prevented–is sadly mostly unrecognized in our culture.
Movements like “Successful Aging” condition us to believe that we don’t really have to age as we get older. This idea—that we can avoid physical aging and even live forever–might better be called “adult terror of old age and death”. If we can set our fears aside and look beyond obvious physical and mental changes, I think we can begin to discern some of the wonders of old age. The best place to start would be to ask the elderly.
Here is a Fresh Air interview with Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, who died recently at age 83 and who believed that growing old is a blessing. Click on the words in blue at the bottom of the box:
The adult ego wants to hold on to adulthood and adult values. It’s the mid-life equivalent of never wanting to grow up. Old age is not failed or failing adulthood but an entirely new and intriguing developmental stage that we cannot successfully enter unless we embrace changed circumstances and a new reality.