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The Second Fifty: Successful Aging

Chapter 8 of “Aging Wisely…Wisdom of Our Elders”

In July 2017, 97-old-year NewBridge on the Charles resident Irving Silverman published a collection of essays on the experiences of aging titled Aging Wisely…Wisdom of Our Elders, co-authored with his daughter, Ellen Beth Siegel. The anthology features essays from Irving and his daughter, as well as fellow residents at NewBridge on the Charles senior living community in Dedham, MA, and Hebrew SeniorLife staff.

With gratitude to the contributing authors, Irving, Ellen, and their publisher, Jones & Bartlett Learning, we are featuring select chapters on the Hebrew SeniorLife blog. Below is Chapter 8, written by Assisted Living at NewBridge on the Charles resident Glorianne Wittes and excerpted in its entirety.

Aging Wisely…Wisdom of Our Elders is now available for purchase on Amazon, or contact your local book seller to find a copy near you!

The Second Fifty: Successful Aging

Glorianne Wittes, LICSW

Glorianne (Glo) WittesGlorianne Wittes, LICSW, is a retired social worker and still-active artist, the lone survivor of a wonderful marriage, and a grateful mother, grandmother and great grand-mother. Though increasingly limited by Parkinson’s disease and other age-related ailments, she is still searching for and expressing joy in her life despite her losses. She resides in Assisted Living at NewBridge on the Charles.

“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” —Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The percentage of Americans age 65 and older has more than tripled in the last 100 years, now representing 13% of the population. Not only are more people living into the second 50 years of life, 70,000 centenarians have entered their third 50 years. And by 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the number of centenarians will be 834,000.

The urgency of these numbers has begun to shift the emphasis from that of medically prolonging life to ensuring that a prolonged life is worth living. The concept of successful aging can be traced back to the 1950s and was popularized in the 1980s. It reflected changing views on aging in Western countries, where a stigma associated with old age (i.e., ageism) had led to considering older people as a burden on society. Consequently, most research had focused on negative aspects of growing older or preventing the decline of youth.

Research on successful aging, however, acknowledged the fact that there is a growing number of older adults functioning at a very high level and contributing to society. Scientists working in this area have sought to define what differentiates successful from unsuccessful aging in order to design effective strategies and medical interventions to protect health and well-being in aging. Many researchers became critical of the very term successful aging” as it implies failure on the part of those who do not meet arbitrary criteria derived from neoliberal or biomedical definitions.

In the year 2000, as the world contemplated the potential of a new century, the eminent geriatric psychiatrist Gene Cohen published the results of a two-year, multisite study that he conducted for the National Endowment for the Arts, entitled “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.” His results showed that creativity has a powerful anti-aging effect on the mind and body. He heralded a new juncture in the field of aging—one in which we move beyond studies of what aging is to what is possible, not despite aging but because of it.

“What has universally been denied is the potential of aging, and the ultimate expression of that potential, which is Creativity,” wrote Dr. Cohen. He believed that the capacity for creativity in older adults went unnoticed in society due to negative attitudes toward later life. To Cohen, creativity was more than a simple artistic ability. He believed it to be the spark that illuminates the human spirit and ignites the desire to grow. This quality, he believed, was innate and something that we can use to shape our lives, especially as we age, to unleash new potentials for personal growth and expression.

In his study, Dr. Cohen proved that creativity has a powerful anti-aging effect on the mind and body. The study examined a number of healthy adults over the age of 65, many ranging between 80 and 100, who participated in twice-weekly programs of painting, writing, jewelry-making, or choral singing. In contrast to a control group, the participants showed better overall health and fewer health problems. They made fewer visits to the doctor and used less medication. They also had better morale and reported less loneliness thanks to feelings of self-control, mastery, and a sense of community with other participants.

Dr. Cohen’s explanation of creativity is simple. The creative spirit thrives on being confronted with limited resources and the challenges that such limitations bring. These limitations force the brain to meet a challenge, to develop a “workaround ethic,” and to come up with a solution born of necessity and creative exertion. To bring into existence something that we create leads to a feeling of personal mastery and contribution. This not only promotes self-esteem as we age, but importantly, it brings about a compensating regeneration of anatomical brain capacity. Even the weight and mass of the brain may increase as a result of regular creative exertion, a phenomenon that scientists call “neurogenesis.”

Cohen describes an “if not now, when?” phenomenon, which has its beginnings as we enter our 40s and 50s. Around that time, our brains start firing on all cylinders and we begin to use both sides of the brain (the logical, analytical left and the artistic, intuitive right) together in lieu of a reliance on one side (typically the left). This stimulates us to be more creative in order to accomplish this integration and to grow in self-confidence and comfort with ourselves. This psychological liberation stage, prominent from midlife to late life, is characterized by an increasing sense of freedom to do the things that we’ve always wanted. Their prompt is an inner voice that asks us, “If not now, then when?” This in turn motivates us, giving us the courage to try something entirely new and self-expressive.

The old model of the aging brain portrayed a no-growth rigidity and a dying-off of neurons, especially after the age of 50. The new medical model and the science of the neuroplasticity of the brain see continued growth and flexibility in the brain when we engage in new and challenging activities, especially novel, creative ones.

Research into aging and the brain also stresses the necessity for elders to do things that challenge and engage our minds because they are different from what we normally do, or because they have the element of fun. Successful aging also requires that we stay connected with other people. We age better when we continue to engage with life and maintain close relationships. Those who do so have been found to eat better, exercise more, and smoke and drink less.

In many ways, we have to redefine ourselves in the face of many changes in ourselves and in the world. Successful or positive living, as it is more accurately known now, is no longer based on ego or endeavors. Life becomes different. Erik Erikson refers to this stage of life as “Integrity,” when people come to terms with the meaning of life, have adjusted to their respective ailments or diseases, and have gained a resiliency that allows them to function in productive ways. Such resiliency is needed when we enter that period from about age 60 onward, when we may encounter significant upheavals in virtually every sector of life: social, professional, geographical, personal, and familial; and when the loss of loved ones is often an inescapable part of growing older. In the face of this inevitability, having a social support network in place in older adulthood is critical. Sadly, our friendship circles tend to grow ever smaller as we age, and the successive passing of each friend brings a sense of loneliness that impinges on our resilience.

Turning now to my own life for examples of all that I have written here, I have led a very full life, rich in loving relationships, diverse experiences and creativity. Now in my mid-80s, I have survived the loss of my beloved husband (nine years ago) and many friends and family members since his death, as well as health problems (some serious, others just annoying, such as failing eyesight and hearing). Few of my lifelong friends are still alive, and many of the friends that I have made here at NewBridge have died. My memory for people’s names stinks. My mobility is very limited, and I dare not move without my walker. With (and despite) all that, I have maintained my creativity, making art and writing; I am adapting to all these technological advances that I find so hard; I am appreciating my wonderful children and granddaughters; and I still wake up to wonderful days, despite many sleepless nights. I feel, most of the time, like I am engaging in the trials of aging with some success and feel blessed that this is the case. When my time comes, it will be with no regrets.

© Jones & Bartlett Learning, An Ascend Learning Company, LLC. I. Silverman, Aging Wisely...Wisdom of Our Elders (2017)

About NewBridge on the Charles
Reimagine your retirement at NewBridge on the Charles, a vibrant senior living community designed for you to live your best life. You’ll find so many reasons why NewBridge on the Charles is recognized as one of the most dynamic and innovative senior living communities in the country. NewBridge offers a dynamic mix of cultural activities, art workshops, presentations, health and wellness programs, classes, and much more. We believe having the opportunity to participate in a variety of interesting and pertinent activities is a vital link to staying healthy and living well.
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Dana Gitell's picture

About the Blogger

Marketing Specialist, Senior Living

As a marketing specialist, Dana Gitell provides strategic marketing and digital communications support to Hebrew SeniorLife’s senior living communities. Her career spans communications roles in nonprofit, government and Jewish communal organizations. She is credited with coining the word “Thanksgivukkah” to mark the 2013 confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, and launching a social media campaign which made the hybrid holiday a worldwide phenomenon.

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