© Paul T. P. Wong, PhD, CPsych
This article is published as Wong, P. T. P. (2014, Spring). Positive aging in Canada. BC Psychologist, 3(2), 16-17.
Although successful aging means different things to different people, there is some consensus that we need to shift the emphasis from the medical model and physical components of aging to psychological and spiritual components, and from a disease model to a growth model. According to a lifespan developmental approach to aging, one can continue to grow in wisdom and spirituality even in advanced stages of aging.
American models of successful aging
In the past two decades, numerous gerontological studies have investigated successful aging (e.g., Rowe & Kahn, 1998; Schulz & Heckhausen, 1996). These models differ in their definition of what constitutes success, but “the prevailing view is that successful aging requires consideration of multiple criteria and multiple adaptive patterns” (Reker & Wong, 2012).
Rowe and Kahn (1998) debunk the myth that aging has to be accompanied by illness and loss of cognitive functions and emphasize the importance of a positive attitude and healthy life style. Older persons can maintain their zest for living and remain productive members of society. Successful aging is characterized by low risk of disease and disability, high mental and physical function, and active engagement with life.
George Vaillant (2002) emphasizes the positive psychology of aging—how to live a happy life in old age. The Harvard Study is the world’s longest continuous study of aging and health. The main finding is that college education is a better predictor of health and happiness than money, social prestige, etc. Uncontrollable factors, such as genetics, parent’s social class, and family cohesion, are no longer important by age 70. Controllable factors become more important. These include engaging in altruistic behavior, staying physically healthy, pursuing education, staying creative and playful, and using mature or adaptive coping. “Successful aging means giving to others joyously whenever one is able, receiving from others gratefully whenever one needs it, and being greedy enough to develop one’s own self in between.”
Canadian models of successful aging
Canadian researchers on successful aging have a more existential and spiritual emphasis than their American counterparts. For example, Mark Novak (1985) focuses on personal responsibility and the quest for meaning within the biological and social-economic constraints that often accompany old age: “A good old age …comes about when, given a basic income, reasonable health, good self-esteem and a little energy, a person sets out to discover a meaningful life for him- or herself.” (p. 273)
Wong (1989) and Reker (2000) stress the psychological and spiritual dimensions of aging. According to Wong and Reker, successful aging is not primarily conditional on physical conditions – we have aged successfully, if we feel satisfied that we have become what we were meant to be, accomplished most of our life tasks, contributed to society and future generations, and kept our faith in spite of difficulties and disappointments. Therefore, successful aging is attainable by anyone, regardless of their physical conditions.
After reviewing the theories and empirical findings on the role of meaning in successful aging, Wong (1989) introduces four meaning-enhancing strategies that are especially relevant to the elderly; namely, reminiscence, commitment, optimism, and religiosity. He concludes,
At present, most of the societal resources have been directed to meeting the physical, social and economic needs of the elderly. While these efforts are essential, one must not overlook personal meaning as an important dimension of health and life satisfaction. Prolonging life without providing any meaning for existence is not the best answer to the challenge of aging. Greater research efforts are needed to provide a firm scientific basis for the application of personal meaning as a means of promoting successful aging. (p. 522)
In the mid-1980s, Wong and Reker launched a longitudinal study on the profile and processes of successful aging in institutionalized and community-residing older adults that came to be known as the Ontario Successful Aging Project (OSAP). For more details on these findings, the reader is referred to Reker (2002) and Reker & Wong (2012). Here are some major findings that are relevant to meaning and spirituality.
In this study, participants were classified as either Successful or Unsuccessful agers based on ratings on mental, physical health and adjustment. Successful and Unsuccessful agers did not differ significantly in terms of gender or income. However, Successful agers had more resources than Unsuccessful agers. More specifically, they differed in the following major resources:
- Social resources (social contacts and marital status)
- Cognitive resources (college education and intelligence)
- Spiritual resources (religious activity and personal meaning)
- Psychological resources (optimism, commitment, self-reliance)
Successful agers scored higher in both subjective and objective outcome measures. These measures include: Health outcomes as measured by a nurse, physical symptoms as reported by participants, psychopathology, depression and perceived well-being. There are different predictors of physical and mental health. For physical health outcomes, the significant predictors are perceived control, perceived income, commitment to personal projects, social contacts and intelligence. For mental health, the significant predictors are: personal meaning, religious activity, social contacts and marital status.
Consistent with Vaillant (2002), Successful agers use more adaptive, mature ways of coping. Our study shows that employed successful agers more often used the following types of coping, which are important for problems that cannot be controlled or resolved personally:
- Situational coping (Problem-focused)
- Existential coping (Meaning and Acceptance)
- Religious coping (Beliefs and Activities)
- Self-Restructuring (Cognitive and Behavioral)
- Social support (Instrumental and Emotional support)
Based on all the research on successful aging, Wong recommends the following ten commandments of successful aging:
- Cultivate internal and external resources.
- Embrace religion or spirituality.
- Stay engaged with life and commit to personal projects.
- Receive college education and be a lifelong learner.
- Develop mental capacity and exercise your brain.
- Get married & stay connected with family and friends.
- Be optimistic and confident.
- Pursue a healthy lifestyle.
- Be reflective and flexible in coping.
- Expand yourself in every way – -turn inward, upward, forward and outward.
Novak, M. (1985). Successful Aging: the myths, realities and future of aging in Canada. New York: Penguin Books.
Reker, G. T. (2000). Theoretical perspective, dimensions, and measurement of existential meaning. In G. T. Reker & K. Chamberlain (Eds.), Exploring existential meaning: Optimizing human development across the life span (pp 39–58). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Reker, G. T. (2002). Prospective predictors of successful aging in community-residing and institutionalized Canadian elderly. Aging International, 27, 42-64.
Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. P. (2012). Personal meaning in life and psychosocial adaptation in the later years. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 433-456). New York, NY: Routledge.
Rowe, J. W., & Kahn, R. L. (1998). Successful Aging. New York: Random House.
Schulz, R., & Heckhausen, J. (1996). A life span model of successful aging. American Psychologist, 51, 702-714.
Vaillant, G. (2002). Aging well: Surprising guideposts to a happier life from the landmark Harvard study of adult development. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.
Wong, P. T. P. (1989). Personal meaning and successful aging. Canadian Psychology, 30, 516-525.