Most adults want to live long, in good health, and with an overall sense of well-being. Aging well describes this goal by promoting positive images and approaches to human aging. Aging well, as opposed to a difficult old age, is the outcome of personal lifestyle choices and behaviors in interaction with supportive physical, social, and cultural environments. Aging well results from exercising the choices that create a successful, healthy, and productive life. It is a dynamic process that involves the individual in interaction with his or her environment, and is affected by historical events of the time and cultural influences. In many ways, aging well is affected by the resiliency and adaptability of the aging individual. The individual and the environment are interactive, and the positive outcomes associated with aging well are a direct result of personal adaptations and negotiations that take place within this context.
As increasing numbers of people worldwide are living longer and are more active throughout the adult years, archaic views of old age as a time of burden, decay, and decline are quickly being replaced by more positive ideas that focus on active and engaged lifestyles that include choices as we age. Attaining a good old age, or aging well, is an important social goal for countries that are experiencing rapid increases in the percentage of older people in their population. The myths and negative stereotypes about older people that were so dominant during the 20th century are challenged by newer views that convey successful aging, active aging, productive aging, healthy aging, and aging well. These contemporary ideas are aimed at replacing past images of old people as burdens on society with views that focus on positive aging. It is important, however, to be realistic in the images of aging that are presented in the media and ideas that are reflected in social policies and programs because it is an equal disservice to older people to create exaggerated images. Aging well, as both a process and an outcome of personal behaviors coupled with positive environments, may be instrumental to creating a productive adjustment within communities to the enlarging older adult segment of the population.
As a dynamic process, aging well cannot be presented as a single description or prescription of how to live. People age differently within their personal life contexts according to individual characteristics and histories that they bring to older adulthood. A hallmark of the aging population is a great degree of both heterogeneity and diversity. Heterogeneity refers to variability within the individual as he or she ages, and diversity refers to the position of different groups in relation to one another within society. The two terms are often confused with one another when understanding issues related to the aging population, and both terms are relevant, particularly in reference to aging well. Even though aging is intensely personal, it is still of great public concern and responsibility. To facilitate and promote aging well among adults in different societies around the world, public commitment is needed for providing policies and environments that enhance lifestyle choices for successful, active, productive, and healthy aging, which collectively represent the ideal conditions for aging well.
Aging well is a contemporary idea and perspective that is intended to counteract negative views and practices. Unfortunately, some social policies and programs that were developed to help older people also contributed to the pervasive negative images held of older people. Programs that created voluntary or involuntary retirement, for example, all too often have promoted a sense of role loss, diminished status, and dependence. Early research in gerontology also promoted negative stereotypes of older people. For example, a biomedical approach to aging often conveys growing older as a medical problem in which illness and diseases are the main foci of attention. This perspective encourages society to think of aging in pathological terms and is accompanied by policies and services that target the care needs of helpless, hopeless, and infirm elders. More recent research provides evidence for a different reality, one in which there has been a decline in health problems and disease rates among the older population, such that more positive images of the aging process might suggest a different outlook. As a more positive view of old age, aging well emphasizes the idea that people can adapt and maintain satisfying lives as they age even when, for some individuals, the circumstances are less than optimal.
Considerable work has been completed in recent years to develop the concept and provide research evidence to support aging well. The intention behind the aging well concept is to propose a continuum for studying heterogeneity among people; this continuum is represented by optimal well-being on the positive end and a difficult old age at the other end. Such a conceptual framework will allow the discovery of determinants and causes on a more integrated level of thinking, one that embraces the physical, social, mental, daily life activity, and material well-being of the individual. Aging well is intended to imply not a dichotomy, but rather a continuum that is flexible across cultures, individuals, and circumstances.
The study of aging has a rich and diverse history, representing varied perspectives on what it means to grow old. This history reflects much of the ideology of the times and cultures in which it was developed and presented in the literature. To say the least, how human aging is currently understood is quite different and clearly evolving from earlier theories of social gerontology. More recently, considerable interest has been aimed at the generation of paradigms and theoretical premises that promote ideas such as successful aging, productive aging, healthy aging, active aging, and aging well; however, much controversy has also arisen around the potential lack of robustness of these concepts to explain a good old age for older people worldwide.
As population aging and globalization continue to affect the lives and lifestyles of older adults, how aging is understood and experienced can be expected to evolve. A single explanation of aging is unlikely and probably not desirable; however, the study of important propositions and social factors that provide foundational explanations of well-being in old age lies at the heart of current conversations about human development across the life span. It is in this context that the concept of aging well has emerged in a broadening range of literature and social action plans, including recent publications of the Second World Assembly on Aging held in Madrid, Spain, in 2002.
In summary, aging well is a person-centered process in which the promotion and protection of physical, cognitive, social, economic, and daily life activities are paramount for achieving a sense of satisfaction and well-being in old age. Aging well is a concept that is recognized as applicable in shaping the public’s image of the adult life course. Aging well is both proactive and interactive behavior in response to the circumstances in which adults live—individually and collectively. The test of aging well is directly related to one’s outlook and to one’s ability to select positive opportunities that will result in a personally satisfying life, as well as social and physical environments that are structured to support aging well versus creating the conditions for a difficult old age. Aging well encourages individuals and societies to envision a desirable future and create a proactive social response that is designed to ensure that future.
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