Successful Aging: Let’s talk about all the ways we benefit from aging
Last week we addressed the question of how to cope with age-related changes; many of them require adapting to loss. Yet aging is not only about loss. It is about gains and opportunities.
Perhaps the biggest one is the increase in longevity, often referred to as the longevity revolution. In 1940, life expectancy was 37 years; today it is 79. This 40-year increase is considered transformational affecting almost every aspect of American life, from business to housing as well as health care, transportation, technology, public policy, our communities and more.
What it means to be “old” has radically changed. In 1772, John Adams is quoted as saying, “the remainder of my days I shall rather decline in sense, spirit and activity. My season for acquiring knowledge is past.” He was 37 years old.
Living to age 100 and beyond is becoming a reality with advances in genomics, immunology, stem cells and transplants. Expectations based on chronological age have changed. A good example is Norman Lear who recently turned 100 years old. The nation is celebrating his milestone with perhaps a message to all of us – that anything is possible. Just forget about age. He is quoted as saying, “Why does everyone applaud when I bend over to tie my shoe?”
Older adults are engaged in successful activities and enterprises that would have been rare 20 years ago. In 2019, the Kauffman Foundation research found that more than 25 percent of new entrepreneurs were between ages 55 and 64. Older adults also own small businesses. According to Guidant Financial and the Small Business Trends Alliance, those aged 55 or older owned 43 percent of small businesses in 2020.
Furthermore, businesses with founders 55 years or older are more likely to survive compared to companies started by younger people according to a study by JPMorgan Chase Institute.
And then there are the opportunities for second, or encore, careers. These are ones after a primary career that embrace purpose, passion, often a paycheck and giving back. A trend was apparent in 2011 when 9 million baby boomers were engaged in this form of work for a cause that nourishes self-fulfillment.
Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Longevity Center writes about some of the benefits of becoming older including the power of the brain in the book “The Upside of Aging” (Wiley, 2014) edited by Paul Irving. We know some brain functions decline with age, but not all. For example, Carstensen raises the question, “Why, when asked to name the smartest, most accomplished, effective leaders, do we think of people well into their later years? And why do younger scholars want to work with older professors? Her answer: “experience.” She notes that younger people may learn faster than older folks but here’s the catch – older people know more.
As we age, knowledge continues to build and vocabularies get larger. Compared to younger people, it may take an older person a little longer to find certain words in a conversation, but older folks know more of them. In a classic study of crossword puzzle competition conducted by Tim Salthouse, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, older contenders performed better than younger ones.
Social relationships often deepen with age. Despite that, older adults often have fewer social contacts and networks, their relationships among those remaining are rated as more satisfying throughout late adulthood. They also recall experiencing more positive than negative emotions with close social partners. And in daily life, they report fewer interpersonal stressors such as arguments and disagreements compared to younger people. As the perceived timeline gets shorter, older adults often seek relationships that are the most rewarding and drop those that are not. Clearly, precious time is not to be wasted.
Finally, happiness is reported to peak towards the end of life despite age-related problems, losses and declines that face many older people. This is the finding from the U-curve of happiness study developed by Jonathan Rauch. He reports that life satisfaction decreases in mid-life, starts to recover around age 50 and peaks at the end of life.
These are just a few aspects of aging that improve with time. Add to that the pleasure of grandchildren, experiencing greater creativity and for many, having the opportunity for options on how to spend this next important life chapter. Perhaps the biggest upside is increased longevity, giving us more time to embrace opportunities for an enriching and fulfilling life.
Stay well dear readers, and know that kindness is everything.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. For more information, visit HelenMDennis.com. Or follow her at facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.