Magazine article National Forum

Savoir Vivre in Old Age

Magazine article National Forum

Savoir Vivre in Old Age

Article excerpt

How to Master the Shifting Balance Between Gains and Losses

One of the great challenges of the next century will be to complete the architecture of the human life course, to transform old age into a period where the gains outnumber the losses, where labeling old age as the "golden years" is more than a dream. We have not yet reached that point. Most of us want to become old, but we worry about being old. We have succeeded in adding years to our lives, but we are uncertain of our ability, as a society and as individuals, to add life to the years that we have gained. Aging well from a psychological point of view lags behind the increase in sheer biological longevity (P. Baltes M. Baltes, Successful Aging, Cambridge University Press, 1990) .

A gap between biological survival and psychological vitality, however, is not new in human evolution. One can even argue that over the millennia the passion to close the gap between the dreams of the soul and the reality of the body has been the foundation of progress and innovation. For instance, we have developed more effective agriculture to feed the hungry; we have advanced more effective long-distance communication technology to compensate for the shortcomings of our visual and auditory senses; we have advanced medical technology to treat or even prevent our illnesses; and we have created institutionalized education to compensate for the deficits of family socialization.

Indeed, the historical evolution of the word "passion" in several European languages tells the story of old age. Originally, passion meant two seemingly contradictory things: (a) a state of suffering and (b) a state of intense desire. In this spirit, scientists and laypeople alike share in the passion to relieve old age of its pains and to make it a phase of life that holds the excitement of human flourishing.

What is the scientific evidence? Will we in the near future be able to approach old age with less trepidation than we do now? Will we ever look forward with passion to being old, to having a romance with the last phases of life?


The passions of humankind for aging well, and the associated scientific as well as societal activities, have spawned outcomes that signal progress. Although it is not yet clear whether the world as a whole does equally well, industrialized societies have demonstrated remarkable efficacy and flexibility in extending longevity for many people and in providing the economic and social resources for them to lead a more satisfying life in old age. Yes, there are unmet challenges and shortfalls, for instance, regarding health care, the stability of pension plans, old-age-friendly transportation, and the social opportunities for older people to create lives with a sense of purpose and productivity. Nevertheless, most experts agree that these challenges can be met if we approach them in a timely, targeted, and concerted way.

As behavioral scientists, we can also report positive findings in the mental, emotional, and personality domains of human functioning. At least up to age seventy-five or so, most people function well psychologically. Humans suffer some losses in intelligence and memory, but for most people these losses are relatively small and do not interfere with everyday functioning. Moreover, in terms of emotional well-being and life satisfaction, the news is surprisingly excellent.

Throughout our lives and perhaps especially in old age, we are continuously adjusting our standards of expectation. As a consequence, most older people enjoy the same level of emotional well-being and life satisfaction as younger adults.

In a sense, psychology outwits reality, including biology. We human beings are outfitted with a remarkable psychological sense of self-protection and self-repair. Strategies of psychological resilience are among our best abilities. For instance, as older adults experience major illnesses with increased frequency, they compare themselves with others who have experienced similar or even worse illnesses. …

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