What Does it Mean to Successfully Age During a Pandemic?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, experts have long debated the meaning of “successful aging.” What does it mean? Is it possible? If so, how might one go about achieving it? These questions are not easily answered, and they are being revisited once again under a new lens: What does it mean to successfully age during a pandemic?

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Before the coronavirus pandemic, experts have long debated the meaning of “successful aging.” What does it mean? Is it possible? If so, how might one go about achieving it? These questions are not easily answered, and they are being revisited once again under a new lens: What does it mean to successfully age during a pandemic?

For a time, successful aging was defined as the ability to remain free of disease and disability, maintain cognitive and physical function and actively engage with life. But given how difficult it is for seniors to remain free of disease and impairment, three Ohio-based researchers arrived at a new definition for successful aging in 2014. 

It is, they believe, the ability to adapt to setbacks like chronic illness and social loss by drawing on one’s internal resources (attitude, optimism, etc.) and external resources (finances and social support). 

In short, successful aging is a matter of resilience — of fighting off the curveballs life throws you. That view acknowledges that no matter your age, a proactive, upbeat approach can improve one’s quality of life. 

Geriatrician Leslie Kernisan wrote that there is considerable merit in this argument:

(T)his model gives credit to those who acknowledge that their lives may or are changing, and purposefully engage in addressing this. … This takes a certain courage. Which, in truth, is what most older adults muster when the time comes. But you’d never know it to see most media images of older adults, which either portray them as free of late-life stressors or instead emphasize their declines without highlighting their successes in adapting, and their ability to find meaning in a new normal.

Now, of course, there is an even newer normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it monumental challenges to seniors, the biggest being that they are at higher risk for infection than the population at large. Beyond that, shelter-in-place orders have limited their activities and contact with loved ones, whether they are living at home or in a residential facility. That results in isolation, which brings with it additional health risks. And finally, there is the ageist view, espoused by some, that seniors’ lives are somehow not as valuable.

That was particularly apparent early in the pandemic, amid discussions about the manner in which resources would be allocated. There was at least an undercurrent indicating that ventilators and the like would be best used on those under the age of 65, the result being that seniors became “double victims” in the estimation of Dr. Gilad Hirschberger, associate professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.

As he told Rolling Stone, people in that age group not only fell prey to the disease but also to “societal attitudes that say ‘You’re expendable.’” It is a view that is as short-sighted as it is cold-hearted. AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said in that same Rolling Stone piece that ageism is nothing more than “prejudice against your future self” and added, “The answer on all counts is to take good care of yourself and others. We are all in this together.”

Which, again, is at the heart of successful aging — finding the best in oneself but also finding the best in each other. Asked by an 80-year-old reader for her advice on how to stay positive during these dark days, Los Angeles Daily News columnist Helen Dennis quoted Mr. Rogers, who once said that his mother always advised him to “look for the helpers.” By that, Dennis added, she meant that it is best to seek out tales of those doing good. In present-day America, that means first responders and everyday people — truck drivers, grocery store workers, etc. — going the extra mile to make life easier for those around them.

Embracing such tales can only buoy the human spirit. Dennis noted something  therapist Kevin Foss told Psychology Today: “While the pandemic may put some things on hold, you should continue to take reasonable steps toward becoming your ideal self.” Dennis had in fact outlined other steps seniors can take earlier in that same column. They included such things as taking a respite from the seemingly endless flood of negative news, remaining active and even enjoying comfort food on occasion (while remaining cognizant of the importance of healthy eating).

In another column a 70-year-old reader pointed out to Dennis that Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus and William Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during the Great Plague. The reader wondered if those of us now in lockdown should similarly strive to take advantage of the glut of idle time with which we have been presented, or if it might also be OK to kick back a little. Dennis responded by saying that it’s not an either/or situation, that all of us need to do what works for us. “Be kind to yourself,” Dennis advised.

There is certainly great merit in that, too. But the key point here is that no matter your age, attitude is everything — that it is critical to find the best in oneself, the best in others and the best in every situation. 

That was particularly evident in a video compiled by the AARP. It began with Millennials being asked to offer their views of seniors going about various tasks, and invariably the younger people depicted them as doddering, faltering, out of step and out of touch. Then a group of seniors appeared, and showed that that was far from the case.

“When people start stopping,” said one of them, a 75-year-old man, “that’s when they start getting old.”

“As long as I’m growing and learning,” said another, a 70-year-old woman, “then age doesn’t matter.”

That is the heart of successful aging: Forging ahead, no matter the circumstances. Being tough, being resilient and meeting every challenge. Yes, the one presented by the pandemic is formidable and unprecedented in recent memory. But it is incumbent upon seniors (as it is those in all age groups) to find the helpers, find the best in themselves and make the most of a tough situation.

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