Successful Aging in Retirement

June 30, 2011

“Successful Aging”  is a broader topic than “successful retirement.” We begin to age as soon as we are born and we all age at the same rate – if you and I are born on the same day, after 23,731 days we are both 65 years old.

But we may differ substantially on how much we have aged mentally and physiologically. Some of the difference can be traced to genetics and there isn’t much we can do about that (at least yet). But much of the difference results from the lifestyle choices we have made throughout our lives, and continue to make as we move into the future. Better lifestyle choices can help us age more
successfully and delay senescence.

But how do we define “successful aging”? Long life? No loss of mobility? Freedom from disease? Staying sharp mentally? Avoiding a nursing home? Remaining happy?

Robert Havighurst, writing in the first issue of the journal The Gerontologist in 1961, defined it as “adding life to the years” and “getting satisfaction from life.” R.C. Gibson said it entailed “reaching one’s potential” and achieving a level of physical, social and psychological well-being” that is pleasing both to yourself and others.

John Rowe and Robert Kahn in their book Successful Aging (Pantheon, 1998) define successful aging as the ability to maintain three key behaviors or characteristics:

1. low risk of disease and disease-related disability;
2. high mental and physical function;
3. active engagement with life.

Another way of putting it is that there are three essential components over which you have some control: physical, mental and social.

There is a plethora of research which demonstrates that to maintain physical well-being we need to exercise and live healthy life styles. We can also become informed about the physical aging process – what is normal and what isn’t. It is surprising how little most of us know about what to expect as we age and what we can do to offset age-related declines.

To maintain mental/cognitive well-being we need to exercise our brains in new and challenging ways. Ball-room dancing, solving challenging puzzles, learning a foreign language are all excellent activities. And it is important to note that recent research proves that you can continue to learn and develop at any age and stage of life. Don’t believe the old adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”
because you can.

The third component of Rowe & Kahn’s model is that of remaining actively engaged with life. Remaining socially engaged or meaningfully connected can be harder if you are no longer in the workforce and your built-in social circle of co-workers is no longer available. There are many ways to fill that gap, ranging from joining clubs to spending more time with family, taking classes or
volunteering. Many individuals find that in retirement there is now the time for creativity, exploration, continued learning and for giving back.

So while successful aging and successful retirement are different topics, they are clearly related. Focusing on both aspects of growing older can help us fill our senior years with a sense of satisfaction, meaning, achievement,  fulfillment and well-being. That’s my definition of successful aging.

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2011 R.K. Price