Life expectancy has improved considerably during the past couple of decades, and an increasing amount of people are looking forward to twenty or more years of life after retirement. But the growing proportion of the elderly to the younger population provides both challenges and opportunities for society (Merriam & Kee, 2014).
With this reality, it is important to explore our attitudes towards Aging, gain an understanding of how this societal shift impacts the future and make the necessary plans catering for individuals entering into this new phase of development.
In fact, the potential benefits of such endeavours extend beyond the welfare of the individuals, out to their beloved families, as well as the society they live in (Fowler & Christakis, 2009). After all, older adults who are happy and relatively healthy can become assets to their communities rather than burdens (Allen, 2008).
This article contains:
- What is The Story With Our Negative Beliefs on aging?
- Who is Creating the Positive Alternative?
- What is Positive aging?
- Brain Plasticity and aging
- How Does the Definition of Well-being Change For Older Adults?
- What Actions Are Being Taken on Positive aging?
- 10 Ways to Activate Positive aging in Your Life
- The Gift of Growing Old
What is The Story With Our Negative Beliefs on aging?
I am 63 and physically much less agile than I was twenty years ago. My strides are slower and climbing a flight of steps is becoming more and more demanding. However, I enjoy this phase of my life as I integrate my many years of knowledge and skills, grow confidence in my purpose and work, and every year, I seem to appreciate the beauty of seasons even more than the last.
Unfortunately, we are living in an increasingly divided society. Here in London, where I live, the dividing line is not just about attitudes to race, religion, immigration, and politics, but, also about age. Mass media is full of comments that consistently place younger and older people against each other. Below are a few typical examples:
- Old people block the beds in our hospitals and are bankrupting our healthcare system.
- Old people are enjoying pensions and state benefits that the younger generation cannot afford.
- Old people keep youngsters out of work by insisting they stay in their jobs for longer than expected.
- And, there are a few who question whether older people should be voting at all, claiming that future only belongs to younger people.
Older people are often portrayed as a ticking demographic time bomb, a burden that society cannot afford, and a generation that refuses to hand over the baton. The result of these discriminatory attitudes towards the aging population has led to older people feeling useless, embarrassed, and ashamed of their lowered social status in the society.
Levy, et al. (2002) studied the effects of these internalising negative stereotypes on the aging population (i.e. negative self-perception of aging) and discovered that it reduced life expectancy by more than seven years. Moreover, the study showed that such beliefs had a bigger impact on survival and longevity than gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, or functional health.
Who is Creating a Positive Alternative?
To refute such negative ideas, Zweifel, Felder and Werblow (2004) and later, Rechel, et al., (2009), successfully argued that the population aging could not have a considerable impact on health care expenditure.
They iterated that while expenditure on long-term care is sure to increase with the aging of the population, its effects on health care expenditure is insignificant. Rechel, et al., (2009) showed that if appropriate measures are implemented in time, aging does not necessarily have to lead to higher health care expenditure.
The fact that people are living longer is splendid and I agree with many scientists (K Zweifel, Felder & Werblow, 2004; Doyle, et al., 2009; Kendig & Browning, 2016) who have shown that, in fact, we can afford our aging population.
These scientists have questioned the claim that the aging population pose a fundamental threat to the sustainability of welfare states by arguing that we should adopt policies which accommodate the aging population without abandoning social solidarity.
It has also widely accepted that by developing better social and health care strategies, we will improve the mental and physical capabilities of our aging population.
We just need a little imagination and a positive approach, as reflected in the mission of the International Federation on aging (IFA) who envisions the world with healthier older people whose rights and choices are both protected and respected.
IFA is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) with a membership base that includes governments, NGOs, industry, academia, and individuals in 70 countries. IFA is the global point of connection for this discussion supporting a network of experts trying to influence and shape age-related policies which will improve the lives of older people.
Some people dread thinking about old age, and rightly so, as there are many examples of people who face severe hardship, sickness, idleness, rejection, and loneliness after retirement. When we reflect on getting old, even the thought of these deficits makes us flinch.
While the potential pitfalls of old age cannot be entirely averted (Vita et al., 1998) there are new possibilities which can make our lives exciting and productive in the later years.
Geriatrics, a well-known branch of medicine and social science, traditionally focuses on the adverse effects of aging and the unique needs of older people. But many researchers believe that while there have been a lot of efforts spent on the negative aspects of aging, the positive sides of aging that are sources of health, vitality, and happiness have been overlooked.
What is Positive Aging?
Scientists have explored the attributes of successful aging concentrating on the positive scenarios. Highlighting techniques and policies that can help us to develop more resilience while strengthening our sense of fulfilment and control, despite the challenges that associated with growing older (Bowling, 1993; Ranzijn, 2002).
Collectively, these techniques are considered Positive Aging (also; aging well, healthy aging, or successful aging) a concept promoted by the World Health Organisation (2015).
Positive aging consolidates the better choices we can make for the later period of our lives, and gives us the opportunity to live our old age happily productive and delightfully active. It is a positive and constructive view of growing older which accepts aging as the continuous and normal development which occurs in human life (Kendig & Browning, 2016).
Nowadays, positive aging is viewed as an important goal for health organisations, health care professionals, and the older people themselves. The concept has grown into a multidisciplinary approach which includes social factors that place emphasis on societal opportunities and public responses which invite older adults to experience a better life (Kendig & Browning, 2016).
“In short, the positive aging movement is about striving to create a society for all ages that prepares for and celebrates the aging process.”
Positive aging aims to reach this goal through:
1) Supporting people of all ages to achieve their full potential,
2) Respecting older adults’ engagement in economic, social, cultural, and family life.
3) Fostering better solidarity between generations
4) Creating a society where equality, independence, participation, care, self-actualisation, and dignity of all people are the prime objectives.
Brain Plasticity and aging
Fortunately, some scientific discoveries support positive approaches to aging. One significant finding is the discovery of brain plasticity in adults which has been successfully used (among other things) to overcome the symptoms of sensory-motor disorders and brain injuries.
Plasticity is the quality or the capacity of a substance to be shaped or moulded. In biology, plasticity is the flexibility of an organism to change, to adjust to its environment or the long-term circumstances of its life.
Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity is a term which describes changes to the brain throughout our lives which came in stark contrast to earlier beliefs that the brain only developed in childhood and then remained relatively unchanged.
The last decade of research has shown that many aspects of the brain are plastic and can be altered, even into adulthood (Rakic, 2002; Pascual-Leone, et al., 2005).
One principle underlying neuroplasticity is the fact that neural connections are constantly being removed or constructed, mainly due to the nature of activities of the neurones (i.e. what we mostly do). Our brains are not hard-wired with fixed neuronal circuits, but rather our brain circuits can rewire, often in response to lifestyle, training, or injury.
Besides this constant brain adaptation, there is also substantial evidence that neurogenesis (or the birth of brain cells) also happens in adults, and can continue well into old age.
Brain plasticity has been utilised to alleviate chronic pain and to help patients integrate a prosthetic device as a normal extension of their body (including the efficient use of artificial visual and auditory devices). And there is promising evidence that older adults can also benefit from brain plasticity in reducing age-related cognitive decline. These benefits can be achieved through education, leisure activities, intellectual engagements, and learning new skills (Kramer, et al., 2004; Vance, et al., 2008).
How Does the Definition of Well-Being Change For Older Adults?
There is a difference between the normal changes related to aging and those that result from independent medical illnesses which are exacerbated by old age.
Normal aging is a gradual process and brings changes that are not necessarily painful or dangerous. These may include thinning and greying of our hair, the stifing of our joints, or a slight decline in cognitive speed and memory performance (Christensen, 2001). But if changes are quick, unexpected, and painful, they could have causes other than aging.
When we discuss well-being in the context of aging, the most important perception is that of the older adults themselves. Ryff (1989) studied and revealed what criteria result in successful aging. His six preferred criteria include:
- Positive Relationships
- Ability to accept change and
- A sense of humour
Well-being is a subjective appraisal of how people experience their lives (Huppert & Cooper, 2014). As a positive psychology notion, well-being is not just the absence of disorder or disease, but a condition conducive to flourishing and growth (Huppert & Cooper, 2014).
In this respect, flourishing is a state of optimum functioning and enduring satisfaction where people experience positivity, fitness, resilience, and growth. In contrast, languishing is referred to a situation where someone’s life is wrecked by negativity, poor health, deterioration and emptiness (Keyes, 2002; Ekman et al., 2005; Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).
What Actions Are Being Taken on Positive aging?
Research has suggested some priorities and recommended societal actions for achieving positive aging. Such actions should be viewed as an essential investment in the aging community and should be implemented at the level of individuals, organisations, and societies.
People are advised to keep a positive attitude, stay active and connected, have a healthy diet, and refrain from smoking (Haveman‐Nies, de Groot & van Staveren, 2003). However, despite a great deal of positive rhetoric, policy making and effective actions at organisational and societal levels have been relatively limited.
Nonetheless, the 2012 delegation of the European Year of Active aging offered a possible focus for renewed policy and increased action for positive aging in Europe. Since then, there has been more interest in the notion of age-friendly communities, and more organisations are considering age as a positive process.
This new discourse on aging has redirected policy discussions from economic or welfare issues to matters of social inclusion, engagement and community development. (Lui, et al., 2009; Walker & Maltby, 2012).
10 Ways to Activate Positive Aging in Your Life
So how can you foster a positive attitude towards aging and find yourself flourishing at this time in your life? Manfred Diehl, PhD, believes there are 10 tips growing old with grace:
Stay physically active
At least 30 minutes of movement or exercise every day. Aerobic exercise is good us and aids brain function in older adults while strength training is good for bones, muscles and joints. Physical activities help keep us active and feeling good in general. Exercising outdoors can also provide social interactions and friendships. Everyone’s health is different so be sure to check with a health professional before engaging in any physical activity.
Exercise your brain
Engage in mentally challenging activities and never stop learning new things. Embrace what you love and seek opportunities to exercise your mind through reading, writing, conversation and debate. Try to engage in activities which require our brains to do some thinking. Simple activities such as reading a book, doing sudoku or crosswords puzzles, etc. can keep our brains to stay alert.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle
By this time in our lives we have heard this message a million times but healthy eating, moderate sleep, good weight management and no smoking or drinking can help you to feel fresh and energetic to take on the challenges of the day.
Stay connected to other people
Treasure and nurture the relationships with your spouse or partner, your family, friends and neighbours. Reach out to others in your community, including the young people. Stay involved with news and latest developments, engaging a positive community attitude. Everyone has a world of their own. However, maintaining social interactions and relationships can help you feel more optimistic about life. Other people matter.
Create positive emotions for yourself
Experiencing positive emotions is good for your body, your mental health, and for how you relate to the world around you. Practice positive emotion exercises and learn to feel good about your age. Being optimistic and feeling good about yourself can help you to cope with its challenges.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
Accept what you cannot do and ask for help. Don’t worry too much; most people enjoy helping. Don’t be too rigid in your ways, keep flexible and go with the flow.
Set yourself goals and take control
It is important to have goals in life and to take control to achieve them. Being in control of your actions gives you a sense of mastery and leads to accomplishments that you can be proud of, giving you a sense of purpose and meaning. If you are able to control important aspects of your life, you are one step closer to achieve positive aging.
Minimise life stress
Stress is a part of everyone’s life, and it’s very natural. Stress can affect our lives negatively, depending on the kind of stress it is. We won’t be able to prevent stress completely, but we can manage it so it doesn’t affect our lives too much. Learning how to cope with stress can promote positive aging. A great way to control or even eliminate stress is to practice mindfulness. Try to minimise your stress- Learn to unwind, relax and “smell the roses”.
Have regular medical check–ups
Take advantage of health screenings and engage in preventive health behaviour. Many symptoms and illnesses are managed successfully by taking charge or your and your partner’s health.
It is never too late to start one of these behaviours.
The Gift of Growing Old
If you are looking for a little inspiration, take a look at this TEDtalk by Robert Waldinger as he shares the results of the longest study of happiness on record.
Take Home Message
Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all aging a little more every day. Luckily, in the past few decades, psychologists have found that there are convincing reasons to accept aging and what this new phase can entail for society as a whole. Accept your limitations, embrace your age, create change in closed minds and have fun, after all:
“Youth is a gift of nature but aging is a work of art.” Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
Reza Zolfagharifard is a qualified positive psychology coach/practitioner, a professional speaker and an executive trainer. Reza did the MAPP program at UEL. Get to know our whole team!
Moving from Vietnam to the United States has allowed Nhu Tran to develop her knowledge and skills in many different ways. She hopes to be able to utilize this knowledge in order to make a positive impact in people’s lives. Get to know our whole team!
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