What Kind of Old Age Will You Have?

Four different paths to fulfillment in later life

Imagine that researchers could tell you how to plot your way to a satisfying old age. Would you listen?

The researchers think you would, and they’ve been trying to map that elusive path for decades. They’ve quizzed countless older people about their health, relationships, mental issues, spiritual beliefs and so on. 

The result? Not one theory. Not one path. Not one…but a bundle. The road to a satisfying old age has many branches—different ones appealing to different personalities.

Paths from the Good Ol’ Days

People who are happy and preferably healthy in their later years are doing what some researchers call successfully aging. What’s not crystal clear is how they got there.

Early on, there were three main theories of aging. Recognize anyone you know in them?

  • Disengagement theory: Introduced in 1961, this concept claimed it’s good for older people to withdraw from work and some relationships, as a benefit to them and to society.
  • Activity theory: This rival idea took over and claimed that successful agers are active and busy.
  • Continuity theory: Choosing the right activities is the secret here—using skills and interests you had at younger ages, just in different ways. 

Though each theory fitted some people, none fitted all. So researchers kept exploring and developing ideas. After a while, they finally agreed on the current consensus: there is no consensus. And the search for new ideas and explanations continues. 

Today’s Theories

“There is no one way to age successfully,” says Jennifer Kinney, PhD, professor of gerontology at Miami University in Ohio. “There are several popular perspectives.”

According to the newer theories, successful agers might focus on physical issues such as health and fitness. They could seek satisfaction in intensified relationships. Or they might turn inward, nurturing their spirituality or inner growth.

There are so many options, you can pick what fits you best. With that in mind, the Silver Century Foundation describes four personality types, each with a different approach to aging happily and successfully:

  • Life Savorers appreciate the meaningful things in life more and more.
  • Strategic Maintainers focus on keeping their quality of life the same.
  • Transcenders slough off the mundane to connect with another level of existence.
  • Preparers set themselves up in earlier years for a good old age.

Which type you’re likely to be depends on what’s most important to you.

The Life Savorer

Life Savorers let go of some activities and relationships. This isn’t a depressing development. And it’s not happening just because their bodies are aging. They become choosier because they realize time is winding down.

People who think they’ll live quite a while longer are more focused on meeting others and learning things that may come in handy one day, according to a theory called socioemotional selectivity. As they get older and realize their time is limited, they focus more on emotional goals and enjoying the present.

Life Savorers invest in meaningful relationships. They pay attention to positive things more than negative ones. They feel good about themselves and life, despite physical challenges that can accompany growing older.

The Strategic Maintainer

Say a woman has been growing her own vegetables for decades. Gardening keeps her active, and it feeds her body and soul. But lately, knee problems have kept her from kneeling in the dirt. What does she do? She buys a bench to sit on while she digs.

With this practical solution, this gardener has fallen smack dab into a theory called selection, optimization and compensation. It says that throughout life, in order to be successful, we do three things:

  1. Select: Choose goals, narrowing them down from countless options. (Garden).
  2. Optimize: Get skills and resources to accomplish chosen goals.
  3. Compensate: Make up for losses that make accomplishing the goals harder. (Get a bench.)

When I am an old woman I shall wear purpleStrategic Maintainers use these steps to maintain their quality of life as abilities change. Like Life Savorers, they narrow down goals and activities, but they do it so they can focus on areas that help them live better. For example, they set out to stay healthy, avoid injury, remain independent or spend time with loved ones.

While their physical or mental abilities might decline, quality of life for Strategic Maintainers remains relatively high.

The Transcender

With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

(Excerpt from “Warning,” by Jenny Joseph)

According to a theory known as gerotranscendence, successful agers toss many social expectations out the window. They’re beyond those concerns now—beyond many things, actually.

“The mistake we make in middle age is thinking that good aging means continuing to be the way we were at 50. Maybe it’s not,” said Lars Tornstam, the Swedish social gerontologist who developed this theory, in a 2010 interview for a New York Times blog, the New Old Age.

Transcenders focus on spirituality. They become less concerned with how their bodies look. They reminisce and reflect. As they mentally break down boundaries of time and space, they become less fearful of death.

They spend their time on intimate relationships, not superficial ones, and they cherish their alone time. They become wiser and less self-centered. Life starts falling into place, but they also accept its mysteries.
“There is also often a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe,” Tornstam writes in his book Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging (2005).

For Transcenders, why not wear purple with a red hat? Life is about more than what we see. And aging is about moving beyond it.

The Preparer

So far, the theories have focused mostly on what people do once they’re older. But there’s a big theory that takes one’s entire life into account. It’s called the life-course perspective.

“I tell my students, ‘Now this one’s the bomb,’” says Denise Lewis, PhD, assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Georgia. “Right now, I think it’s probably the best way for us to understand aging.”

Preparers start affecting their old age before they even get there. Lewis recommends five research-backed steps to age successfully. They fit into this theory, and people can start at a young age:

  1. Make a lot of friends—people you can have both deep and casual conversations with.
  2. Get together with those friends often—maintain contact, even if you do it through email or social networking.
  3. Eat nutritious food—the kinds that give you the most nutritional bang for your caloric buck.
  4. Laugh a lot—it may increase self-esteem and well-being.
  5. Go for long walks with your friends—exercise and keep active throughout your whole life. 

Diverse People, Diverse Paths

Today, there are a variety of aging-well paths to choose from, and if you’re not sure you’re headed toward a satisfying old age, now’s the time to change your trajectory.

In her book, The Search for Fulfillment (2010), psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, offers advice for people who want to make a change in order to age successfully:

  1. Honestly examine where you’re headed.
  2. Ask someone close to you to give feedback.
  3. Start with small changes if you need to.
  4. Don’t be afraid to get counseling.

Whether you’re a fitness buff, a spiritual sage or a meticulous planner, there’s a successful-aging path for you. Whichever you choose, it’ll be fascinating to see what’s over its horizon.