Report from the Positive Aging Conference

I have just returned from the eighth Positive Aging Conference in Washington DC, and  I came home revitalized.  I met many interesting and dedicated people working in the field of positive aging, and a number of the presenters were seniors themselves, in their 70’s and even 80’s.  One had completed his PhD in his mid-70’s.

First: What is Positive Aging?  There is no single definition for it, and different people and organizations even use different terms for the same phenomenon.  Various definitions of Positive Aging include

  • Enjoyment of living
  • Maintaining good health in later life with a healthy living style
  • Having positive feelings toward aging
  • Flourishing
  • Affirmative lifestyle and mindset
  • A sense of control in one’s life
  • Emotional wellness
  • Adaptability to new opportunities and challenges

One of the keynote speakers at the conference was James Firman, President and CEO of the National Council on Aging (NCOA).  Dr. Firman spoke on Navigating Longer Lives: Seven Keys to a Brighter Future. He started with a few statistics, including the fact that increasing life spans of boomers and increasing numbers of them equates to over 1 billion years of good health over the age of 65.  This is 12 times more than for their grandparents’ generation.

Dr. Firman’s Seven Keys include

  1. Change our expectations of ourselves. Having low expectations of older adults equals ageism, even if it is the older adults themselves who have low expectations. As he said “this is self-inflicted.”
  2. Discuss and define responsibilities. First of all, we need to manage ourselves – be involved with our own care of chronic conditions, and our general life planning.  Tell people what we want, have our legal documents in order. Then, be contributing members of society as a generation – get involved in the environmental movement, social justice.
  3. Create new norms for the third age. Dr. Firman asked: What is the meaning and purpose of this stage of life? He then discussed several specific norms: how do we spend our time, how do we include older people in society (participation), and what is a desired mix of learning, contribution and leisure.  We can spend a little less time watching TV and a little more time learning and growing, and contributing to our communities.
  4. Innovate to motivate: how do we motivate people to do these things? His answer is to satisfy their wants in the process – have fun, be healthy, financially secure, provide meaning and purpose, and inclusion.
  5. Create new pathways. There is very little guidance available for older adults, and no rituals that give meaning to this stage of life. Dr. Firman cited NCOA’s Aging Mastery program as a resource available to older adults. You can look it up at
  6. Innovate to optimize key assets. Those assets include time, skills of older adults, knowledge/wisdom, relationships/connections, homes and cars, health benefits, purchasing. Many of the examples he used were technology based: ride-shares, home-shares, learning exchanges, Seniors Helping Seniors, and NCOA’s Benefits Checkup program.
  7. Collaborate to create this new phase of life. The social contract still assumes a five year life, but now people are living 20 years or more after retirement. Our society needs to create a shared vision and a shared language of what we want.

The next Positive Aging Conference will be held in 2018 in Denver.  I plan to be there. Maybe I will be a presenter, too.








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