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"Successful" Aging -- On Whose Terms?

What are the criteria by which we should measure our ability to function fully as older adults?


Recently, I traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to visit friends in my most recent former home town (I’m a native New Yorker). While there, I co-produced and participated in a local public radio program discussing the “Age-Friendly Cities and Communities” movement, comparing efforts in Charlotte with those in Portland, Ore., where I now live.

It was a lively exchange among the program’s host and guests, as we discussed such topics as the importance of creating more affordable housing and transportation for older adults in order to reduce their social isolation and ensure their continued economic prosperity and cultural engagement. Although the discussion of these particular topics conveyed some of the challenges of aging in our culture, I was left wondering whether or not our society truly “gets it” about the need to change how we view the process of aging. Because it seems to me that how we perceive aging and the viability of older adults determines our willingness –– or reluctance –– to tackle social inequity, lack of access to services and opportunities, and other common challenges our elders face.

How do we know if we are aging well? What are the criteria by which we should measure our ability to function fully as older adults?

A popular way to describe what I’m talking about is the phrase “successful aging,” which is usually contrasted with “normal” or “usual” aging. One description of successful aging involves “freedom from disability and disease, high cognitive and physical functioning, and social productivity and engagement.” But that’s only one reference. Searching the term on the Web yields nearly 6 million results, the overwhelming number of which emphasize personal lifestyle choices and behavior, such as how much and often a person chooses to exercise or whether he or she has saved enough money for retirement.

But there’s an inherent problem with equating aging with the kind of success that is solely based on conscious individual achievement. For how many conscious decisions, including exercising and saving for retirement, do we really make on our own without the influence of other, external factors?

Let’s take exercise. If you belong to an athletic club, it’s probably because you have the financial means to do so. If you have the time to walk, jog, or run in your neighborhood on a regular basis, perhaps it’s because you don’t have such burdensome obligations as being a full-time caregiver or having to work two or more jobs.

If you have enough money for retirement, perhaps it’s because you worked a long time at a company that offered employees a pension, and you didn’t get laid off in the recession because of your age. Or you didn’t suffer a debilitating illness that drained you financially, despite having health insurance. Or you have a spouse or partner that has contributed significantly to your household income. Or you have a child who was able to attend college on a scholarship.

Of course, I’m not saying that personal decisions make no difference at all in how “successfully” we age. But I am asserting that society shouldn’t attribute unsuccessful aging primarily to a lack of personal responsibility. Many obstacles can get in the way of elders’ well-intentioned efforts to remain functional in mind and body, economically solvent, and socially engaged –– obstacles primarily related to racism, sexism, homophobia, and of course, ageism.

If the older adults in our communities aren’t aging successfully, it can’t be because each and every one of them has failed to live in a responsible way. Instead, it just might be that we have opted for “normal” or “usual” aging and haven’t yet created a society that actively promotes and supports the successful kind.

In short, maybe it’s because we are failing them.


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