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Successful aging: what it means for older adults

The Bottom Line

  • Aging is a socially constructed phenomenon, influenced by culture, societal expectations, as well as socio-demographic characteristics and individual experiences.

  • To “succeed” in aging, however, it takes more than positive attitudes: social and environmental factors also contribute to the possibility of aging in good health.

  • Your definition of successful aging must include elements that matter to you.

"Successful aging" has become an important concept to describe the quality of aging.(1) Despite a growing literature on this topic, there is no standard definition of successful aging. It is increasingly seen from a holistic point of view. It may refer to the capacity to maintain good physical health, while also referring to the social and psychological adaptation processes in later life. In this blog post, we explore how some older adults have defined successful aging.

What research tells us

A recent systematic review of 22 studies examined how older adults define "successful aging".(2) Although older adults are not a homogeneous group (since gender, culture or state of health can influence perceptions), 12 themes emerged from the literature:

1. Maintaining meaningful relationships and social interactions with family and friends, as well as engage in their community and have access to resources and support.
2. Maintaining and cultivate a positive attitude to maintain emotional well-being.
3. Being healthy to stay independent for as long as possible.
4. Having a financial safety net to meet basic needs, cover living costs, have access to health insurance and get the care they need.
5. Accepting (and adapting to) physical changes associated with aging, and be opened to use assistive devices or gradually adjust activities.
6. Being engaged to stay active (for example, volunteering or pursuing hobbies).
7. Developing spirituality to improve well-being, give meaning to life and prepare to the later stage of life with serenity.
8. Having support from social policies favorable to aging, such as access to quality health care, free or affordable, access to work, government pensions, access to meals or housekeeping services.
9. Being autonomous and independent to maintain some freedom and continue to perform daily tasks without assistance, as well as to take care of yourself without depending on others.
10. Maintaining good cognitive health to stay alert, reduce memory loss, maintain mental activity and an active mind.
11. Staying physically active to delay old age or simply to be able to maintain a social or professional life.
12. Having a "good" death, ideally in the comfort of your own home, surrounded by family members.

What matters to you?

You may have a different perspective on "successful aging", whether you are an older adult, a caregiver, or a family member contemplating the later stage of life. It is never too early to plan ahead and have conversations about your values, wishes and beliefs related to aging.  Your definition of successful aging must include elements that matter to you.(3)


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Author Details

References

  1. Urtamo A, Jyväkorpi SK, Strandberg TE. Definitions of successful ageing: A brief review of a multidimensional concept. Acta Biomed. 2019;90(2): 359-363.

  2. Teater B, Chonody JM. How do older adults define successful aging? A scoping review. International Journal of Aging and Human Development. 2020;91(4): 599-625.

  3. Bowling A, Dieppe P. What is successful ageing and who should define it?. British Medical Journal. 2005;331(7531): 1548-1551.

DISCLAIMER: Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of these blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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