Aging Well - Ok! What Does it Mean?

Just What Is Aging Well?

Would you agree that staying healthy and feeling good are important as one ages? Would you also agree that as you age, you will inevitably experience an increasing number of major life changes, including retirement, children leaving home, the loss of loved ones, physical and health challenges, and, even, a loss of independence? I propose that how you manage and grow from these changes is a key to aging well.

My view of aging well is probably broader than other views you have read. While it is based on the six dimensions of wellness: physical, intellectual, social, spiritual, emotional and functional, I have found that more is involved. More includes getting rid of outdated habits, overcoming a reluctance to change beliefs that are no longer supportive, taking better care of yourself, and accepting reality. More also includes making difficult choices, being resilient and resourceful, and committing to no longer getting in your way.

Before we get started, let me briefly introduce myself. I am an 82 year old woman who lives in Northern California with my two rescue cats, Bailey and Bella. I have a PhD in psychology and am a licensed mental health professional with over 30 years of experience. When my husband of 60 years developed severe memory loss four years ago, I began researching how older people dealt with challenging circumstances and still managed to age well. During our marriage, we raised two children and two grandsons, moved across the country, and made a good life for ourselves – we were a team. Then I was his primary care provider until he moved into a memory care facility last fall. While there, he contracted COVID and died. During that time and still, I must daily dig deep within myself and make changes. So, I have decided to share my journey with  others who want to age well given difficult circumstances.

Six Dimensions of Wellness

The six dimensions of wellness are often discussed.  While this model includes the vocational dimension, other models replace that dimension with the functional dimension, which I prefer. Vocational wellness recognizes personal satisfaction through one’s individual skills and abilities in regard to work, volunteerism and the ability to add value in life. These attributes can be covered in other dimensions.

 The functional dimension of wellness can be thought of as the antidote for functional decline -  losses of independence, of self-care capabilities typically associated with deterioration in mobility, and in the ability to conduct activities of daily living (ADLs) such as dressing, going to the bathroom, and bathing.

Functional decline is common in older adults. It is often episodic and associated with a high risk of subsequent health decline. The severity of disability is determined by physical impairments caused by underlying medical conditions and by external factors such as social support and the environment.

Common age-related functional decline includes vision problems such as macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma. Hearing loss, tinnitus, and balance problems may occur. Some people experience memory and brain problems as well as mental fitness or dementia. There can also be a weakness in one’s bones such as osteoporosis.

It seems as if physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual wellness contribute to functional wellness and to aging well – no matter what.

Now, let’s take a peek at those other issues.

Old Habits

Habits are formed when new behaviors become automatic. Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. Someone who instinctively reaches for a cigarette after waking up has a habit as does someone who puts on running shoes and runs before work. Wise people release ineffective habits and adopt effective ones.

Learned habits, instinctive behaviors and routines occur automatically without conscious intention or thought. These begin to form at birth and by approximately the age of six, most of us have ingrained behaviors that will follow us throughout our lives.

The American Journal of Psychology (1903) defines a habit, as a more or less set way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.

Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed in persons exhibiting it, because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when undertaking routine tasks. Habits are sometimes compulsory. A 2002 daily experience study by habit researcher Wendy Wood and her colleagues found that approximately 43% of daily behaviors are performed out of habit. New behaviors can become automatic through the process of habit formation. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form because the behavioral patterns which humans repeat become imprinted in neural pathways, but it is possible to form new habits through repetition. A 2007 study by Wood and Neal found that when behaviors are repeated in a consistent context, there is an incremental increase in the link between the context and the action. This increases the automaticity of the behavior in that context.

Habits that might change if you want to age well could be walking a 10K race rather than running it or eating smaller, healthier meals rather than choosing foods rich in fat, salt and sugar.

Beliefs Play a Role

For decades, research has shown that our view of the world is influenced by our prior beliefs. Beliefs help us make sense of what we perceive in the present, based on similar past experiences. However, just because things are viewed in a certain way doesn’t mean they are. 

Beliefs are states of mind that endure over time. They shape who people are, affect their actions, and determine their quality of life. Beliefs influence a person’s perception of reality. Perception influences conscious and unconscious reactions. These reactions impact a situation and create a repetitive and predictable outcome. In other words, perceptions are influenced by beliefs and they influence thoughts, feelings, and reactions to a situation which in turn affects the outcome. 

Research about aging reveals that older adults who hold positive beliefs about aging are likelier to care for themselves better, and exhibit positive health behaviors.  It seems that when you feel like you have control over your life, rather than believing that nothing you do will make a difference, you have far more motivation to take positive steps. Maybe, that means if we change the conversation about aging in America, we can also change certain chronic health issues that cost billions of Medicare dollars every year.

So, evaluate your beliefs and acknowledge the role they play in your perceptions. Make sure they support your goal of aging well!

Self-Care - A Must

Self-care isn't simply about eating well and sleeping a certain number of hours at night. Certainly, those are valuable habits to have and they definitely support healthy well-being, but it may have more to do with cultivating a healthy mindset. A mindset that practices gratitude and self-kindness. A mindset that helps you uncover the reason why you don’t practice self-care. This mindset is one of feeling worthy and desiring to succeed. It's also about wanting to be better and about taking care of yourself on the most basic level.

As simple as it sounds, many people pay little attention to self-care. It could begin with simple acts such as not checking emails at night when you know it affects your sleep and extends to more important decisions like taking a vacation or scheduling a massage when you feel the need.

Dr. Kimberlee Bonura, fitness and wellness consultant, suggests that self-care is the foundation of healthy life style and that means taking care of your body, your mind, and your emotions. Take a look at her 4 minute youtube video on chair yoga as a way of taking yourself.

Self-care encourages you to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself so that you can extend good feelings to others. You can’t give to others what you don't have. While some people may misconstrue self-care as selfish, it isn’t. When you pay attention to your well-being, you're reinvigorating yourself so that you can be the best version of yourself for the people around you. Everyone benefits from the renewed energy and joy you exhibit.

Acceptance - It’s a Choice

Acceptance is a strong influence in aging well. The older you get, the more your capabilities, stamina, and energy change. You may tire more quickly, have more aches and pains, and may not be as motivated as you once were. Acceptance means to acknowledge what is happening right now and then decide what you are going to do about it.  Dr. Phillip McGraw, author of several books and host of the television show Dr. Phil, identified 10 Life Laws. The 4th Life Law says “a person can’t change what he or she doesn’t acknowledge.” His solution includes getting real about life and everybody in it, being truthful about what isn’t working, using no excuses, and making results.

People have been given an incredible and irrevocable gift that provides them with the power to choose their individual paths in life but they must accept responsibility for the choices they make. As people age, they make choices about lifestyle, health care, personal pursuits, and plans for old age. So, choices are a strong influence when aging well. Wise choices focus on adopting and maintaining healthy habits and positive lifestyles, keeping yourself stimulated, being smart with financial planning, and working to maintain dignity and good health in old age.

Basically, when we accept a situation, we stop resisting what’s happening and decide to make changes.  When we don’t accept or face what’s happening, the problem continues, even if it’s hidden.

Yes, acceptance is a choice—a hard one most definitely, but a choice nonetheless. And after the choice to accept comes the choice to make necessary changes particularly as one ages.

Resilience and Resourcefulness

Willingness, resilience, and resourcefulness are essential tools for aging well.  You can spend a great deal of energy agonizing over what you don’t or can’t have or you can spend the same amount of effort and energy making what you have work for you. This is the challenge and goal of remaining happy and vibrant while aging.

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. Sources of stress such as family and relationship problems, serious health issues, or workplace and financial stressors play a role.

Resourcefulness can be defined as the ability to act effectively or imaginatively, particularly in difficult situations. Why? Because while it's one thing to have a great idea, it's another to find creative ways to do it. Life doesn't always hand us solutions to our problems; sometimes creativity is required.

Underlying both resilience and resourcefulness is willingness:  the willingness to understand ourselves and others, the willingness to be persistent and bounce back, and the willingness to find creative ways of living life given the circumstances. 

How willing are you to change old habits, beliefs, and perceptions that no longer work for you? How willing are you to accept the truth and make the hard choices?

Self-Sabotage

There are numerous reasons people have for sabotaging themselves or acting in ways that damage their goal to age well. They spend much of their lives struggling with strong urges to overeat, drink, and gamble even though there are painful costs to their health or relationships.  These costs intensify as people age. Forces leading to self-sabotage can be quite subtle. They include an accumulation of distorted beliefs causing you to underestimate your capabilities, suppress your feelings, and lash out at loved ones. An important aspect of dealing with this damaging behavior is to identify the source.

To understand how self-sabotage is tied to human existence, take a look at the two principles driving survival: attaining rewards and avoiding threats. People are programmed to strive for goals because achieving them feel good. The problem, especially when it comes to sabotage is that peoples’ biochemistry doesn’t necessarily separate between the good feeling they have when they are going toward their goals and the good feelings they have when they avoid something that seems threatening.  In fact, a psychologically threatening event can trigger similar fight-or-flight responses just as physically threatening events do. 

Attaining rewards and avoiding threats are the two sides of the same coin. They aren’t independent systems and there is a constant interplay in the brain between them. When attaining rewards and avoiding threats are balanced, all is well. When a person feels good, physical and psychological well-being is assured. Self-sabotage occurs when the drive to reduce a threat is greater than the drive to attain a reward. Perceived threats are influenced by low or shaky self-concept, internalized beliefs. fear of change or the unknown, and excessive need for control.

Take a look at how you want to spend the rest of your life – do you want to go slowly downhill until death or age well – no matter what.  You can be a couch potato and watch television all day or you can explore ways to age well.

If your goal is to age well  and  you liked this post why not share it. Stay tuned, there is much more to come.