By Mimi Kraus, LCSW-C
At the turn of the twentieth century, the average lifespan in the US was under 50 years. Recently (before the onset of the Coronavirus), many scientists believed the average age could reach 100 before the end of the twenty-first century thanks to the development of advanced medical and surgical treatments and childhood vaccines. As life expectancy has increased and people began living many years past retirement, the question of how to age successfully and meaningfully became most salient.
Prior to the 1980’s, little was known about how people age successfully and maintain a high quality of life. The emphasis in gerontology, until that time, was on the 3 “Ds” of disease, decline, and disability. Groundbreaking research in the 1970’s and 1980’s brought new information and a new focus on what is called “successful aging”—high cognitive functioning, active, and interactive lifestyle, and the absence of disease and disability. Studies showed that making lifestyle changes such as eating healthy, quitting smoking and excessive drinking, physical exercise, and compliance with medication regimens could reduce risk factors for disease as well as reverse the course of some chronic medical conditions. Studies showed that people could support their mental function by seeking intellectual stimulation such as reading, playing games, taking classes, and seeking a path of lifelong learning. Maintaining social contacts were also shown to mitigate the losses involved with aging and provide meaningful social supports and a sense of purpose and connection. This need has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic as shut-downs, stay home recommendations and social distancing mandates have increased the risk of social isolation among our elders.
As people age, spiritual needs such as finding meaning and purpose in one’s life become increasingly important. According to prominent developmental psychologist Eric Erickson, as people age, they reflect on the life they have lived and come away with either a sense of fulfillment from a life well lived or a sense of regret and despair over a life misspent. For those struggling to come to terms with their lives, Life Review Therapy may help people resolve past conflicts, reconstruct their life stories in more positive and meaningful, and accept the reality of their present situations.
In summary, to maximize a successful and meaningful aging process, the following suggestions may be useful:
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle of nutritional eating, abstaining from smoking, using alcohol in moderation, exercising regularly, developing good sleep habits, and taking medications as prescribed. Doing these things will reduce risk factors for disease and disability.
- Keep yourself mentally stimulated by reading, playing games, engaging in projects, hobbies or athletic activities, following the news, or taking classes. Conversations on topics of interest can also be mentally stimulating.
- Get involved in activities with others to maintain a sense of meaning and connection. Participate in group activities. During times, such as these, when in-person events may not be possible, take advantage of the many virtual opportunities now available for exercise, religious services, book groups, gatherings with friends and family group, using Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet, and Skype. If high tech isn’t your thing, many of the same opportunities for joining in and staying connected are available by telephone.
- Develop a positive attitude, focusing on the glass being half full. Cultivate the senses of joy, playfulness, and pleasure.
- Resolve unfinished issues in important relationships. Reflect on your life and come to understand that your life journey is unique with many facets. Work on developing a sense of acceptance of yourself and others.
Mimi Kraus is a Manager of Therapy Services at Jewish Community Services.
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.