Once upon a time, aging was not on my radar, and time was infinite. Now, it’s anything but. What’s left is to make the best of the time that’s left and going in fast forward. And there’s some advice from the nonagenarians.
In the study,1 forty-five 90 or 91 year-old men and women from Finland told their life stories. Then they answered what they considered to be a “good old age” and what’s needed to achieve it.
Before we get to the meat, here are some things to keep in mind.
1) There is no causality in this research. What do I mean by this? The basis of this research is to find themes in people’s stories. There is no proof that if you follow the advice arising from these themes, you’ll find happiness.
Having said this, there’s a lot of value in people’s insights. Experimental research – that allows causality to be inferred – begins with insights, observation, and inferences.
2) Another important thing to keep in mind is that some advice is culturally dependent. I’ll note where there could be cultural disparities.
You’ve been warned.
Here are some tips for successful aging that cropped up:
Don’t be Afraid of Death
When I was young, I wasn’t afraid of death. Now, that death is creeping closer – well, surprise, surprise – I’m afraid! Very afraid. Apparently, that’s the wrong way to go. Not being afraid of death is what the nonagenarians believe leads to a good life.
This advice makes sense from a psychological point of view. No one needs an ever-present fear flitting through everything they do and think. It’s a bit of a downer. Non?
Be Physically Healthy
Being physically healthy is one of the most prevalent themes in this study. It’s consistent across other studies of successful aging. Part of physical health includes general health, mobility, being physically active, and being pain-free.
So what does this mean for you and me? Exercise. Get your yearly check-ups. Be on top of health problems. Eat well. Do anything to load your good health probability.
Keep your Marbles
The nonagenarians believe that healthy cognitive functioning is as important as physical health to aging well. Many emphasized the importance of being dementia-free. Going even further, they include having a good memory as well as the importance of learning new things to successful aging.
So, try to keep your mind active!
Work on your Psychological Health!
The nonagenarians did explicitly emphasize the importance of being psychologically healthy. This includes living in the present, having a positive outlook and attitude, coping well, adapting, and being depression-free.
This, for me, is an important category. The mental life can lift you above your circumstances or bury you. Given that some illnesses, disabilities, and life circumstances are outside of people’s control, psychological strategies can still lead them towards happy aging.
Strive for Independence
Having independence was a theme in half the interviews. This category covers a lot of ground including financial independence, physical independence, and the ability to make decisions over one’s life.
More than a quarter of the respondents emphasized financial independence. This is not money for luxury goods and vacations but for medication, rent, and food.
So start planning for retirement! (I haven’t done this. Bad. Very bad.)
Have your own Home
The nonagenarians indicate that living in one’s own home is important to happy aging.
This is a category that’s true for some cultures but not all. In Finland, very few older people live with their children. Further, older people prefer to live on their own rather than some institution because of the poor quality of care in Finland’s institutes. In other cultures, it’s common to live with children or in retirement homes.
Where do you fall in this category? Your home? Your child’s? Or some nice, luxurious retirement villa?
Build up that Social Network
Having company is a theme that threaded through many interviews. This took the form of having friends, being friendly with neighbours, having a family, and being in a good marriage (avoid the bad ones!). Although most of the respondents were widowed, they still indicated that a happy marriage remained a source of life satisfaction.
This category boils down to avoiding loneliness.
What does this mean for us? Join clubs! Talk to your neighbours. Go out with people! Make the effort to keep in touch with your family and friends. There was a good tip from one of the nonagenarians: have friends of all ages. When your ninety-plus, many pass away.
1 Nosraty, L., Jylhä, M., Raittila, T., and Lumme-Sandt, K. (2015). Perceptions by the oldest old of successful aging, Vitality 90+ Study, Journal of Aging Studies, 32, 50-58.