How to Age Successfully *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Since most Americans fear aging, we have become obsessed with being young. If we cannot be young, at least we want to look young. Along with this, we hold a stereotype of elderly people as being hump-backed, shuffling, and impaired both mentally and physically. We view aging as a negative process. However, research by psychologists and gerontologists (those who study aging) finds that lifestyles the elderly can tell another tale.

Aging can be done successfully – if you have a positive mental attitude. William Rakowski, Brown University Center for Gerontology, studied about 1,400 people over 70 who were having health problems that were not life-threatening. Some blamed their aches and pains on aging, while others blamed external factors that could be changed – a virus or too much exercise. Those who blamed aging were 78% more likely to die than those who blamed external factors.

This positive mental attitude is developed over a lifetime. The characteristics you develop by the age of 30 are likely to be those you display when you are 70. "If someone is inflexible at the age of 30, he or she will probably be so at age 70." The stereotype of the grumpy, inflexible "old goat" is more related to that person’s specific character than it is to the general process of aging.

Another component of successful aging is to continually challenge yourself. A 10-year on-going psychological study in California assigned 175 people to either a control condition or to be foster-grandparents for neurologically impaired children. Their average age was 72. To function as foster-grandparents, they had to engage in many activities the controls avoided. They had to walk several miles a day, engage in social interactions with the children, and deal with heavier physical demands. The foster-grandparents have shown more complex brain activity, better memory and better sleeping patterns than they had before becoming involved in the program. This was not found with the controls.

In contrast to the stereotype, memory losses are not significant. Frank Benson, a UCLA neurologist, indicates, "Memory in older persons is probably better than they think it is." Older people do gripe that they are more forgetful. Even so, when memory tests are given, they perform well.

Memory does decline slightly in our 60s and 70s. However, cognitive losses in memory can be countered by expertise – knowledge that individuals have in specific areas. This knowledge remains intact with age. In some cases, it may increase. Mental stimulation can help the brain to retain and expand it abilities. Denise Park, director of the Southeastern Center for Applied Aging Research in Georgia, supports this.

"Although a decline in processing abilities occurs with older persons, increases in knowledge may be the basis for wisdom."

Throughout our life span, successful living is
making the most of what we have.

In 1990, psychologists Paul and Margaret Baltes published a book, Successful Aging. They have developed a model of successful aging that involves "selective optimization with compensation." In the face of inevitable restrictions of aging, "selection" involves focusing on high priority areas of life. These are areas that give older people a feeling of satisfaction and personal control. "Optimization" is deciding to take on behavior that will enrich and enhance the abilities they still have. This helps them make the most of what they want out of life. "Compensation" involves using resources – either their own or others’ – to gain their objectives. This can involve casting aside vanity to get hearing aids or bifocal glasses. It may mean purposefully becoming dependent on others for routine needs, so you can save energy for things you want to do. Even in nursing homes, clients can allow themselves to be dressed by a nurse, so they can engage in favored activities – like playing the piano – later.

Another 10-year, ongoing study is being done by the Philadelphia Geriatric Center. The study is using 1,800 older and younger people and focused on happiness. They have found that older people were just as likely to be happy, elated, contented and interested as younger ones. Subjects 65 or over were less anxious than younger subjects. Older subjects made the best of the aging process by learning to avoid situations and people that are distressing or exhausting. They focused on activities and attachments that are pleasing to them. They sought emotional goals that brought satisfaction, usually involving more intimate bonds with family and friends.

There is no exact formula to guarantee successful aging. However, anthropologist Robert Rubinstein of the Philadelphia Geriatric Center seemed to sum it up well.

"Successful aging is reaching for whatever is just beyond your capability – and not buying into the prevailing myths of aging."

* Adapted from Pamela Margoshes’ article, "For many, old age is the prime of life," APA Monitor, May, 1995, pages 36-37.

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