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May 21, 2014

Aging: Yeah, it Could Happen to You, So Embrace It

“No one can avoid aging, but aging productively is something else.”
Katharine Graham


It’s not something many tech-savvy young adults care to think about, nor do they give it a passing nod, it seems.

According to the Pew Research Center, younger adults are growing more and more detached from the longer view of their lives.

According to the Pew “the Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood. Now ranging in age from 18 to 33,  they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future.”

But when it comes to the notion of aging, it’s a non-starter. They’re too embroiled in the me-centric world of the now, it seems. They’ve been described as self-absorbed, but aside from insisting they’ll be economically better off than their forebears, they’re carrying more and more debt as they age.

It’s a troubling scenario, but for generations of other Americans, aging is a concern and many of us go there knowing little of what to expect.

Image courtesy of (photostock) /

Image courtesy of (photostock) /

Americans are living longer than any of the nation’s preceding generations.

And, according to a report released earlier this year, their life expectancy is increasing every year.

People born in 2009 can expect to live 78.5 years. That’s an increase from just a year earlier – when life expectancy at birth was 78.1 years. Since these latest statistics were collected, life expectancy has increased even more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, and now stands at 78.7 years.

Much of the continued increase in life expectancy owes to better treatment of cardiovascular disease, a CDC researcher said.

And Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center,told “To the extent that we all want a bounty of years in life, this report conveys encouraging news. Life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is rising for all groups.”

In the years covered by the current report, life expectancy increased for both men and women. For males, life expectancy went from 75.6 years for those born in 2008 to 76 years for those born in 2009. For females, it went from 80.6 years to 80.9 years, according to the report from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, part of the CDC.

Life expectancy also rose by race — for whites from 78.5 years in 2008 to 78.8 years in 2009; for blacks, from 74 years to 74.5 years; and for Hispanics, from 81 years to 81.2 years, the researchers found.

“Life expectancy has been increasing pretty steadily for the last 50 years or so,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Life expectancy has been increasing for several reasons, Anderson said. But, he added, “improvements in heart disease and stroke mortality have had a big impact. That’s a large proportion of total deaths and that’s where the action really is in terms of improved life expectancy. That’s really what’s driving the trend.”

Still, the U.S. Ranks 35th in world life expectancy rankings – far behind countries like Monaco (86.5), Japan (84.6) and even Italy, eighth overall at 83.1 years.

But, while we’re marching into the ranks of the gray in increasing numbers, most below the age of 50 rarely pay much heed to the need to grow old well and to grow old toward a time of independence and enjoyment of life.

Image courtesy of (stockimages) /

Image courtesy of (stockimages) /

Most experts on aging will agree the aging process, while undeniably very much about physical changes, is one that should be embraced as much with the mind and spirit as anything. recalled the story of one senior who decided to kick it into high gear to get his motor restarted. After hearing how many of his peers were worried about their appearances and the like, Kirt Spradlin has a different take on aging.

The great-grandfather is one of those vigorous and optimistic elders who astounds his peers. Naturally, he tires more easily and has to take things slower, he says. But having battled prostate cancer, the California man relishes every single month that life affords him. When asked his age, he proudly replies, “79 and a half.”

The former electrical engineer took up a new hobby after retirement: mountain climbing. He has climbed Mount Whitney and Kilimanjaro and trekked to a Mount Everest base camp. Just last year, he and wife Donna went on a weeklong backpacking trip — just the two of them alone in the wilderness. Donna is 80.

“People think we’re nuts,” he says. But for him, aging with a bad attitude is simply out of the question.

Susan Whitbourne, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told WebMD a lot of aging well is between our ears.

A dose of healthy denial can improve outlook in one’s later years, she adds.

“The people who do the best with aging aren’t thinking that much about getting older. They’re not really focusing on what’s not working anymore. If you sit around mulling over the meaning of existence and how time is running out, you’re building in a scenario where you’re not going to age as successfully.”

Travel to many communities in the Southern U.S. and occasional pockets of Canadian provinces and you’ll see communities almost entirely dedicated to catering to and embracing the needs and interests of aging people.

They’re not, by any stretch, “raisin ranches” where shuffleboard and bingo are the biggest games going, and we could probably expect to see more of them.

In fact, there’s a global movement – which is only embraced in some of the aforementioned states and provinces in North America, for whatever reason – that is dedicated to creating “age-friendly communities.”

In Western Australia, the Department for Communities is encouraging local government authorities to “embrace the World Health Organization’s Age-friendly Communities concept which is part of an international effort to prepare for the ageing of our community.”

Image courtesy of (Ambro) /

Image courtesy of (Ambro) /

An age-friendly community is one which:

• Recognizes the great diversity among older people.

• Promotes their inclusion and contribution in all areas of community life.

• Respects their decisions and lifestyle choices.

• Anticipates and responds to ageing-related needs and preferences.

According to the Government of Western Australia, which has wholly embraced the concept, an age-friendly community benefits everyone in the community, not only older people as it creates a culture of inclusion enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities.

AARP, Inc., formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, is a United States-based non-governmental organization and interest group dedicated to retired or senior individuals. It’s become something of a clearing house for novel approaches the explosion of seniors in the worldwide demographic.

AARP has embraced the concept of age friendly communities and provides a concise overview of it and where such communities can be found in the United States and with links to worldwide age friendly communities.

Image courtesy of (stockimages) /

Image courtesy of (stockimages) /

More information can be found here. 

A terrific, highly interesting book on the issue was written by a Harvard professor following an exhaustive study comprised of more than 800 students as they progressed from early adulthood into their later years.

“Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life” was written by George E. Vaillant, M.D. Vaillant is a psychoanalyst and a research psychiatrist, one of the pioneers in the study of adult development. He is a professor at Harvard University and directed Harvard’s Study of Adult Development for 35 years.

One of his findings show we age better and more happily if we have someone to share the journey with.

According to Vaillant it’s “astonishing how many of the ingredients that predict longevity are within your control.”
Aging successfully, according to Vaillant, is something like being tickled — it’s best achieved with another person. Whether your social connections are with a spouse, offspring, siblings, bridge partners, and/or fellow churchgoers, they’re crucial to good health while growing older.

Richard Lucky, one of the so-called “happy-well” participants in the Harvard study cited by Vaillant, was always surrounded by people, whether it was having friends over for dinner or interacting with his children and grandchildren. In his 70s, he sailed with his wife from San Francisco to Bali, and he had begun writing a book about the Civil War. He told the Harvard researchers, “I am living in the present — enjoying life and good health while it lasts.”

Many of us might not have the wherewithal, finances or drive to sail across the ocean or pen a tome on the Civil War, but we can certainly begin embracing – and planning for – those so-called golden years.

Like birth, death and taxes, we’re all inexorably going there so we might as well enjoy the ride.


Chris Malette is a retired newspaper journalist with 35 years of experience as a reporter and city editor. Over his career, Malette covered municipal and federal politics, military, health and court beats. He has reported from Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and covered relief efforts in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He now works for SPN News as an editorial columnist.