Back In My Day: Successful aging isn’t all too successful

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When it comes to online financial gurus and those YouTube channels who keep babbling about how I need to invest in the stock market, the buzzword that always pops up is ‘success.’ We inherently value success, and it’s one of the many factors that keeps us motivated to get things done. That being said, success may represent different ideas for different people. 

For some, success may include wrapping up homework before midnight for once and getting to bed early. Others may find success in purchasing their first apartment or finally signing a lease. And those who are overly ambitious may find success in making it on the Forbes ‘30 under 30’ list. 

Success can, therefore, be assumed to be a lifelong goal. The way we live can also be determined to be successful or not depending on certain religious and cultural ideals or material gains. However, to live and age successfully in a biological and physiological sense can be difficult.
Gerontology prides itself in finding the secrets to ‘successful aging.’ Being the field that studies aging, it makes sense that we take a stab at determining the ideal lifespan. However, the current social models that persist in the world of gerontology and occupational therapy fail to accurately summarize the smorgasbord of factors that inherently play into the process of aging. 

“But Lois,” you, the inquisitive reader asks. “Are you saying that there’s not a definitive way to age well? I mean, eating vegetables and doubling down on antioxidants are proven to help limit or prevent neurodegenerative diseases through the reduction of oxidative stress. There are clearly ways to age well; what’s the deal with trying to deny that?”

Those arguments are warranted, of course. We know that there are healthy and important ways for aging well: staying in shape, connecting with others — all that fun stuff you can read in a tabloid or off the internet. 

However, we need to refocus our energy to a more positive view of aging that does not implicate older adults into believing that how they’re living is inherently wrong. That being said, people are still able to age ‘successfully.’ But the use of the current paradigm or timeline to determine said ‘success’ is irresponsible and narrow-minded. It creates a utopian mindset that if every older adult were able to fulfill certain steps, we’d be able to ‘solve’ aging. The wording in it of itself is harmful, implying that there is ‘unsuccessful’ aging. Imagine being told you’re growing up wrong.

While simplicity is key in terms of analyzing a dumbfounding amount of data, the reduction and across-the-board approaches to older adults may miss the mark when it comes to efficient interventions. There is a severe lack of comprehensive research in aging when it comes to older people with disabilities, older women, older people of color and those with difficult socioeconomic situations. People who choose to live in assisted living communities live much different lives compared to those who choose to age at home and not enter a nursing home in the first place. 

Policy and practice are key elements to changing how we visualize aging. It’s similar to the conversation that is often had with equity versus equality. Simply giving everyone accessibility to the same resource or program is one thing, but ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to efficiently use those tools is a whole different story. 

In terms of aging, a new model may include recognizing how neighborhood environments play into engagement and willingness to participate in social activities. It may take into account a community’s accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables compared to communities engulfed by fast food chains. 

The model in turn will provide stronger interventions that may not only put more people to work but also better the aging process altogether. The new California Master Plan for Aging sets a bold example of an intervention for others to follow into the next decade. It values equity and diversity along with recognizing the importance of the caregiver at home. 

Lois Angelo is a sophomore writing about the intersections of gerontology and social issues. He is also co-chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Back In My Day,” runs every other Tuesday.