I’ve worked with aging adults since I was in my teens. Now that I am an aging myself, I realize that most of the advice I see on TV has NOTHING to do with aging successfully. It’s not just about diet, exercise, medications, or safety. It’s about so much else.
Aging Is NOT Just a Number
The first key to successful aging is to shift from “how many” to “how much”. Instead of counting the number of years you have lived, see if you can measure how much love you have received, how much satisfaction you have gotten from doing something for others, how much fun you have had working on creating something.
Lest you think I am some kind of Pollyanna, you also should measure how much sadness and loss you have experienced, how much regret you have for things said or done, and how much time you have wasted feeling sorry for yourself. Successful agers know there will be loss and sadness and balance that with gratitude.
Comparing these measurements and seeing what needs to be brought into balance is the first key to successful aging.
Adapt or Die!
The second key to successful aging is staying flexible. This isn’t just about your body. As a matter of fact, while it is important to keep your body moving, successful agers stand out from the crowd because their minds are curious and open to new ideas. Mental flexibility is essential!
Adaptation is hard-wired into being human. For some reason though, some of us become inflexible as we age. Our preferences for keeping things the way they were take precedence over learning new ways to engage with the world we live in. Successful agers find ways to stay open to new ideas.
This doesn’t mean you need to buy the latest technology or give up favorite things. It does mean you will be far more successful (and less stressed) if you accept that change is a given.
The key here is to acknowledge your resistance, which often arises from fear of change, and challenge that belief by saying to yourself, “I don’t know, but I am willing.” Being willing is just one part of managing change. To be truly skilled at this, you need to be ready, willing, and able.
Managing Transitions: Capacity to Make Necessary Changes
Successful agers understand that not everything goes according to plan. The capacity to make the necessary changes when circumstances change is the third key to successful aging.
Most of us develop lots of different skill sets around planning and controlling. There are advanced university degrees available for people who want to specialize in this! Successful agers are good at managing transitions which frequently means accepting that even though you think you are in charge, you are not.
I don’t know how many of you planned on living through a pandemic in your later years. It was not on my schedule! But most of us found ways to manage the transitions this pandemic forced on us.
Take a moment to think back on what your life was like pre-COVID. Now write down all the shifts you had to make in your routines – how frequently you shopped, how frequently you saw friends, how you managed medical appointments, emergencies, and every-day events.
Somehow, during this past year, we even carried on our political lives, albeit with many bumps, twists, and unexpected conflicts. Successful agers have a greater capacity to stay centered when things change and make the necessary adaptations to keep themselves together.
Valuing Yourself for Who you Are, not What You Do
The fourth key to successful aging is valuing yourself for who you are, not what you do (or have done). Most socialization and positive reinforcement in our culture comes from “doing” things. In childhood, we were praised for good behavior and good grades. In young adulthood, it was good grades and getting into college or finding a job. In adulthood it was raising a family and succeeding at work.
Things begin to shift after we retire. Generations before us worked until they died. Our grandparents and parents were the first to experience “retirement”, which meant we went from “doing” to “not-doing” and then died.
Successful agers today recognize that the time between “doing” and “not-doing” has widened from years to decades. The key here is to let go of the life-long expectation of being praised for what you do and create a different reinforcement pattern that comes from a deeper understanding of who you are and what it means to be you.
Lest you think I am spiraling into some New Age mystical exploration, I am not. This is about valuing yourself for your accumulated wisdom and finding ways to create a legacy of values that you can share with those who will come after, whether this be your family or your community or a combination of these.
Seeing Death as the Next Step, not the End
The fifth key is controversial, but in my years of experience working with elders, each and every one of them has talked about death not as an ending, but as just another step on their journey. This is true for those who were atheists and those who were ordained.
Successful agers come to accept that while our lifespan may be expanding, it is not about how many years we live, it is about the quality of life we live during the years we have.
Filling our days with experiences that bring us joy, connection with others, opportunities for receiving and giving love, and periods of quiet punctuated with laughter are what make up the kaleidoscope of a life well-lived. Pain is part of aging. Death is inevitable. We have preferences and expectations that will not always be met.
5 Keys – Come to Think of it; Maybe You Have Considered These . . .
- Shift from “how many” to “how much”
- Increase your mental flexibility and adapt more often than resist
- Manage transitions: Increase your capacity to make necessary changes
- Value yourself for who you are, not just what you do or did
- See your life more as a cycle rather than a straight line