Categorized | Features, Commentary

What is the right path to successful aging?

Eggert, as a toddler, with her mom watching boats

Photo: Eggert, as a toddler, with her mom. 


Eggert with her late mother, Shirley Schultz

Eggert with her late mother, Shirley Schultz

“We have to give Mom credit, she really aged successfully.”

I wonder if that is what my kids will say when I am gone.

Did I start thinking about aging successfully too late?

Now in my 50s, I’m trying to figure out what “successful aging” means and whether I’m on the right track. The phrase was introduced in 1987 by John W. Rowe, M.D., and Robert L. Kahn, Ph.D., following the publication of their research “Human Aging: Usual and Successful,” in the journal Science. It was a concept in the 1950s; it was studied in the 1980s; and today it is an imperative.

Like most women of my generation, I have spent a lifetime trying to achieve success — at school, in marriage, parenting, career and relationships. Looking back, there were ups, downs, smooth terrain and bumpy roads. The good news: I’m still married, my kids still talk to me and I have friends. But when it comes to aging, am I on the correct path?

Eggert and her sons Sammy (in stroller) and Benjamin

Eggert and her sons Sammy (in stroller) and Benjamin

Babies depend on their parents and caretakers to help them age successfully. The pediatrician monitors how well they progress physically and emotionally. As they grow, their world does too. If they are fortunate, kids have a network of successful aging experts — family, teachers, coaches and peers. I have two sons and so far they seem to be aging successfully, but they are not doing so with intent. They just get up and go.

Ironically, that is exactly what most seniors want to do. You used to be able to get up and go. But with slower reflexes, you can no longer drive. Or your arthritic knees make it impossible to walk into town.

Does successful aging mean that we can change this trajectory?

When my primary care physician suggested that I take Centrum 50 at age 40, it didn’t make any sense to me. I was offended. Ten years passed, then three more. Looking back, was that his subtle way of helping me age successfully?

Science continues to make remarkable advances in keeping us alive longer. But unlike newborns, no one (except me) monitors my successful aging.

Here is what I know now:

Perhaps I think about this more than the average person. That is because I work with older people and see what affects their quality of life. My goal is to help them age successfully, despite any physical issues.

This is what I think about:

Can our environment evolve as my body and abilities change? For example, sidewalk curbs are too high but public toilets are not high enough.

♠ Will I have access to a team of geriatric physicians, nurses and social workers who will understand my needs and communicate with each other?

 Will I be lonely? Will I continue to have relationships with people of all ages? In my practice, most of my clients are isolated. My goal is to re-engage them, help them find joy at a time in life when loneliness becomes the norm.

Will I be able to afford to live to 80, 90 or even 100?

We have lots to ponder and even more to do if we want to age successfully.

When the kids were younger. Visiting Day at the West End House Camp

Visiting Day at the West End House Camp when the boys were younger – with husband Michael

Over the years I have watched family members grow old and decline. Plans and services are often put in place after an emergency. When quick decisions have to be made, we constantly question ourselves, and oh the guilt.

I now advocate for thinking about aging successfully as an individual and as a society. This is an ongoing conversation that involves everyone from health care providers to government to builders and families.

When I am an elder, I hope that I can proudly walk down the street with the support of my walker. I want to know that there are thoughtfully designed public restrooms and that there are reliable, affordable and dignified transportation options for when I have to give up my driver’s license. I want affordable, clean and safe housing plus opportunities to remain social and relevant.

We have a long way to go to make aging successfully a reality. Please join in the conversation and share your ideas here.

Carolyn Schultz Eggert is a freelance writer and owner of e.e.Companions, which helps seniors remain active and relevant despite physical or emotional challenges.

One Response to “What is the right path to successful aging?”

  1. Successful aging?? How old is old? We have 2 sets of friends, one couple died before they got “old”. She was 85 and he was in his late 70’s. When I was in my 50’s they were my role models. She was a well know mosaicist, and he helped her with her projects. Their work was all over the country, including the Boston Garden and the Park Street subway station. They were the pied pipers.With them we picked up oysters in Wellfleet, canoed through from one pond to another , ate fabulous pot luck dinners accompanied by a lot of booze. They were always up for fun. They lived creatively.
    Tonight we are going out for dinner with the other couple. She is 85 and he is close to 90. They struggled to start a small restaurant when he came home from WW II. It grew beyond their wildest imagination. They keep each other going. He sees that they both exercise and drink their awful vitamin drink every morning . They have a wide circle of friends and are loving and enthusiastic to friends and strangers alike. They laugh and have a good sense of humor.
    Everybody ages. Everyone eventually gets health problems. I think the key is having something you love to do, having friends, and are partners who work as a team.You keep all that up until you cannot do that anymore.


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