There are currently a growing number of resources and strategies for healthy aging being promoted by those within the health care professions, other community care agencies and the business sector concerned with the emerging demographic of older adults (55+). The growth in this demographic is unprecedented and will continue to influence all sectors of society over the next few decades. The expectation of another third of life for those in their mid-50s is creating new challenges and opportunities for this generation. This expectation is a result of arriving at this time of life with better health, education and more options for accessing community support services and personal resources, resulting from planning over the years. Healthy aging results from a number of factors being developed and held in a balance.
There are five factors, in particular, which will influence the health and life fulfillment of those entering the older adult years.
1) THE VOCATIONAL FACTOR
There are several questions which will have to be resolved as a person anticipates moving from the middle adult years when daily commitments to work and family have provided the framework for meaningful activities and use of time. What is the purpose of aging and how can someone live meaningfully into the changing roles no longer defined by daily work and family commitments as a parent with children at home? Realigning priorities and commitments, while staying motivated and interested with a meaningful use of time, can be a daunting and sometimes discouraging experience. The importance of still being needed and making a contribution to the future, family and community is an important factor to be resolving. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently been reporting that suicide rates among middle aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade. One of the explanations being suggested for this finding is that those in their 50’s and 60’s are struggling with realigning life expectations for the future.
2) THE WELLNESS FACTOR
The importance of being responsible for personal wellness and health care is a factor contributing to healthy aging. There is an expectation for longer life expectancies as medical research continues to seek responses to the many diseases related to aging. The continuing developments in the medical and health care sciences and professions are also raising a new awareness and a better informed approach to personal health and wellness. Again, a number of questions converge as a person transitions into the later years of life. What are the consequences of living longer? How does one anticipate and plan for the inevitable diminishment of health? There is a growing realization that personal wellness will be realized when a person is approaching their life in a holistic way. Wellness includes a balanced understanding of relational support systems (i.e. family, community), psychological integrity and environmental satisfaction (i.e. adequate housing and home life). It can be a time in life when there could be a spiritual openness to explore and develop a knowledgeable approach and understanding to the ultimate questions resulting from a growing awareness of one’s mortality. There also should be attention given to the resolving of “end of life” preparations for self and the significant others entrusted with fulfilling these expectations.
3) THE SOCIAL FACTOR
The social factor is concerned with the significant other relationships, friendships and community connections providing a feeling of personal security and wellness for the individual. There is recognition by community leaders and homecare providers that the social consequences of loneliness and isolation for many living in Canada’s busy and culturally diverse cities can have a significant impact on the quality of life for older adults. In today’s highly mobile world, family members are not as easily available for regular contact with aging parents to provide the care and reassurance needed. There are increasing concerns around affordability issues for housing and other daily necessities. Often it results in a person having to relocate at a time of life when it is more difficult to establish new supportive relationships. People need a social context of both giving and receiving stimulation and support in relationship with others to stay healthy. How will older adults feel they belong and are making a contribution in an age where ageism is continuing to ignore and sometimes reflect prejudice towards them? There are often concerns around who will be the primary care partners for those who can no longer care for themselves as government funding for needed services declines. Answers for these and other questions are going to be more difficult, as the number of older adults continues to grow into a significant minority (majority in some communities).
4) THE RESOURCES FACTOR
The resources factor involves the awareness and appreciation of the cumulative value of a person’s life experience, career fulfillment and achievements, personal integrity, supportive relationships and an adequate financial plan to sustain one’s basic living needs and expectations. For many, there will need to be assurances that there will be financial stability often resulting in some intentional shifts in one’s lifestyle. Concerns around finding affordable and trustworthy counsel for management of personal affairs will be a growing need for many who have not required such advice up to this time of life. The resources factor needs to be expanded beyond just financial planning and implementation, which seems to be the focus for many. There will need to be a deeper appreciation for the other “personal equity” resources (beyond financial) people bring to the later years of their lives, which can be appreciated by themselves and those around them. The possibilities are many for encouraging and challenging this unprecedented wave of maturing people to become viewed as elders and not just the “elderly”. They have been living resourceful and engaged lives and will want to continue to make a meaningful contribution to their families and communities. They could be developing mentoring and counseling relationships informed by their own life experiences, career and professional insights gained through their full-time working years and their personal passions and interests as they plan for their futures.
5) THE SPIRITUAL FACTOR
American author, marriage and family counselor, Michael Gurian says in his book THE WONDER OF AGING- A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty (ATRIA Books, 2013) that the post 50’s time of life provides us with second chances to make adjustments to enhance our lives. Regarding spirituality he suggests that:
…making peace with our bodies’ gradual vulnerabilities as we age is a spiritual act, a second chance at becoming spiritual in the way we may not have had the time to become before. Even if were good at practicing our religion before, knowing all the rote elements of it, we might now become better at practicing spirituality, for now we can “get” what the masters have always been trying to teach – Self, Soul, Identity, Grace, Service. If we enter a time of making spirituality a part of our lifetime of second chances, we can stop spending a great deal of our second half of life in low-grade sadness, depression, anger, even rage at what is happening to our bodies (our souls), but instead see how miraculous the life of the soul is as it flows and adjusts within even our illnesses. (p.242)
Aging allows a person the opportunity to discern that beliefs, worldviews and the possibility of post-life dimensions for continuous being can be important and life enhancing. Are the changes , I am experiencing (will experience), confusing and discouraging or a time to more deeply understand and embrace the possibility of a newly informed faith paradigm for resolving many of life’s mysteries and unanswerable questions? How do others, communities of faith and other culturally informed resources open the possibilities for a more deeply informed faith and a more mature time of spiritual formation?
The value of exploring and embracing the mysteries of life’s ultimate questions can be a helpful and a maturing activity in the later years of life as a result of being aware of the spiritual factor.
The coming decades will present an unprecedented time of challenge and opportunity as governments, community care agencies, faith communities, other voluntary organizations and the business sector respond to the growing presence and influence of the aging “boomer” demographic . There will be increasing needs and possibilities for rethinking how greater cooperation can be achieved for all who are trying to assure a safer and healthier environment for the aging. Identifying and recognizing how human and financial resources can be deployed in an effective and sustainable way will require some ongoing dialogue with those in the communities who are already engaged in providing services to address the factors outlined above. It will be important to have a balanced and an holistic approach for achieving an environment which can encourage a global commitment to healthy aging. All ages will benefit when a commitment is shared around the value of caring for the aging. These five factors and others will require attention as new networks emerge to respond and develop strategies for action which will be effective.
Dr. Paul Pearce has served as a pastor, educator and administrator. He recently retired from being the Executive Director of Beulah Garden Homes, which provides affordable housing for older adults in East Vancouver. He currently is involved in establishing and directing the Centre for Healthy Aging Transitions located at the Carey Institute on the UBC campus.
Dr. Sandra Yuk Shuen Wong is a registered psychologist serving in Vancouver and Richmond.
* This article recently appeared in the spring 2014 issue (Volume 3- Issue 2) of the BC PSYCHOLOGIST which is the journal of the BC Psychological Association. Permission has been granted to post it on the CHAT web site.