Another Look at “Successful Aging”

Every time we assign the sole responsibility of "successful aging" to an individual, we disregard their uniqueness in a very unrealistic and unjust way.

Isn’t it time we finally retire the phrase “successful aging”?

Three years ago, I wrote a piece for Dr. Bill Thomas’s Changing Aging blog called “Successful Aging—On Whose Terms?”  My main point at the time was that there’s an inherent problem with equating aging with the kind of success that is solely based on conscious individual achievement. Even if an older person has adequate health and wealth and is socially active and passionately engaged in living, success is never solely due to that person’s choices, actions, and abilities. Luck and uncontrollable external factors play equally influential roles in the outcome.

I’d mistakenly assumed I had covered all of the points I’d ever want to make on the topic. But even now, if I do a Google search for “successful aging,” I see that the term and all its attached misconceptions remains slow to die.

I wish it would. Quickly. Here’s why.

Every time we assign the sole responsibility of aging well to an individual, we disregard that person’s uniqueness in a very unrealistic and unjust way. Each of us has gone through a combination of biological and socioeconomic experiences that have affected us at every turn.

Are you a male or a female? Are you a member of an ethnic or racial majority or minority? Females and minorities in general are economically disadvantaged throughout their lives, earning less than their white, male counterparts and subsequently receiving smaller pensions and Social Security benefits. In addition, more women than men leave the job market to become unpaid laborers who raise children, care for elder parents, or both.

Have you spent most of your life on a farm or in the middle of a big city? Did you inherit great wealth or have you had to earn all or most of your income? How much education were you able to afford and receive? What career paths were open to you? Did you ever experience serious health problems that affected your ability to work? How many children, if any, do you have, and are they willing and able to help you in your later years if you need support? Do you have easy access to nearby and affordable housing, transportation, and other vital services for older adults?

Somehow, the media still miss these questions in coverage and definitions of “successful aging.” And because these factors aren’t foremost in the public’s consciousness as issues to address, they are often ignored or considered irrelevant in government and private-sector policy decisions. This situation must change.

“Success” implies accomplishment within an established system. But what if that system is outmoded, disjointed, or worse, deliberately fostering social inequality? Then successful agers who have been lucky, wealthy, and in the majority are aging well because of our social policies and cultural norms. But people in other categories who have managed to age well are successful despite those same policies and norms. Their challenge has been far greater.

And let’s not forget that there is a huge population of older adults who struggle to stay economically and physically stable as well as purposefully and socially engaged. In many cases, their difficulties could be significantly eased if our society would redefine “successful aging” in less polarizing terms. Let’s stop evaluating aging as either the result of being ambitious and productive or being negligent and irresponsible.

In fact, let’s totally ban the term “successful aging.” We need to replace that unproductive and discriminatory paradigm with one that is realistic, compassionate, and fair—one requiring an equal commitment between the individual and society.

Let’s coin a new term: “Empowered Aging.”

Why “empowered”? Because it moves the focus away from the static goal of accomplishment and toward an ongoing process of maintaining autonomy, dignity, and self-worth through interdependence.

This bilateral commitment should be fostered throughout a person’s life, starting from childhood. We should raise children to appreciate every age through which they pass and expect our cultural values to honor and support them all along the way, in their education, careers, personal relationships, and social contributions.

When an individual’s skills, values, aspirations, personal history, and beliefs are continuously supported by a pro-aging society’s common goals, expectations, opportunities, and public policies, empowerment becomes the inevitable human condition.

And isn’t that the kind of success we should aim to achieve?

Jeanette Leardi is a writer, editor, and community educator who has a passion for older adult empowerment. A blogger for ChangingAging.org, she teaches journaling, memoir writing, fighting ageism, brain fitness, intergenerational communication, and caregiver support to people of all ages. She lives in Portland and can be reached through her website, jeanetteleardi.com.

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