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Develop a plan for how to age successfully

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear Readers:

Successful aging is like world peace. Everyone is for it, but they’re not sure how to make it happen.

However, while most of us can explain what world peace means, that’s not the case with successful aging.

One reason is that “success” is an ambiguous term. Additionally, the shifting meaning of successful aging has paralleled changes in theories about social and psychological aging.

Here are a few examples of those theories:

Disengagement theory: This theory proposes it is considered normal and expected for older adults to gradually withdraw or became disengaged because they are less interested and less capable than they were when younger. For example, with this theory it would be expected for adults to retire, sit in a rocking chair and watch the world go by. Few, if any, subscribe to this approach.

Activity theory: This one suggests that people age most successfully when they participate in daily activities; they keep busy. It has been referred to as the “busy ethic.” Most gerontologists believe this approach is too narrow.

Continuity theory: This theory is supported by specialists in aging. It suggests that people who age most successfully have the habits, lifestyles, preferences and relationships they experienced in midlife. Changes that do occur often occur over time and sometimes aren’t even noticeable.

Until the 1980s, many researchers

defined successful aging as the number of years a person lived. More recent approaches take into account not only length of life, but quality of life.
The meaning of successful aging has moved from what is called a loss model to one that looks at gains, such as becoming empowered, self-actualized and having an enriched life. We now have conferences on Positive Aging, movements on Conscious Aging and a journal on Aging Well.

Can an older adult with limitations be considered to age successfully?

Researchers say yes.

Dependent older adults have reported experiencing intimate times with family members, a revival of their spirit and what they describe as moments of pure aliveness.

What has evolved is a two-tiered approach to successful aging: one for relatively healthy adults and one for the frail.

And yet even attaching health has its problems.

Consider Stephen Hawking, the brilliant 70-year-old physicist who has ALS; and Mother Teresa, who at 81 continued to serve the poor of India in spite of her own physical infirmities.

Some principles have gained acceptance.

The work of Dr. John Rowe and Robert Kahn in their study of 1,000 high-functioning older adults identified three characteristics successful-agers had in common:

— They had a low risk of disease and disabilities. They avoided risk factors such as smoking, lack of activity, obesity, chronic stress and excessive drinking.

— They maintained a high level of physical and mental functioning. This refers to the notion of “use it or lose it.” Strong evidence supports that exercising both body and mind slows the normal aging process.

— They stayed actively engaged with life. This engagement meant establishing and retaining relationships, particularly those that are reciprocal, each giving and taking. It also means being productive by getting involved with activities that have meaning.

What is the message?

We have a great deal of influence over how we age. By following the findings of Rowe and Kahn, we can develop a game plan:

Eliminate risk factors: If you smoke, stop. Lose weight if necessary. Stay active. Be moderate. Eat nutritious foods. Use sunscreen. Manage your stress through exercise, yoga or meditation.

Get physically active: At 88, Helen Hayes said it well: “If you rest, you rust.” Stay mentally engaged — in work, leisure pursuits and family activities. Yes, that means chess, bridge, Sudoku, crossword puzzles, learning a new language, travel or reading the newspaper. Learning anything new creates new neural pathways in the brain.

Engage in happy activities: Get social. Stay connected. Remember, reciprocity is the key. Become engaged in productive behavior – activities that have meaning, both paid and unpaid. Consider continuing to work, volunteering, going to school and having fun with your grandchildren.

On Saturday, we have the opportunity to enhance our own aging by attending the Daily Breeze Expo on Successful Aging at the Torrance Marriott. Find out what’s new by attending some of the seminars and visiting the exhibit hall.

Successful aging is something we strive for. It is positive. It suggests potential, opportunity and well-being. It is achievable. So let’s celebrate and seize the moment for ourselves and share it with family, friends and special loved ones.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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