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.








Avoiding isolation and loneliness

In the previous post, I discussed the importance of social interaction and friendships in maintaining health and well-being in later life.

What can we do to prevent isolation in our older years?  Here are some suggestions

  • As boomers, we can look at our housing options for aging, and choose to live in a place that has easy access to social activities. A gerontologist has described much of the housing in the US as “Peter Pan houses” – built for people who will never grow old, and in places  (suburbia) where one needs a car to go anyplace.  This alone leads to isolation or dependency on others for transportation when one can no longer drive, and can limit the number of friends who will be able to visit you as they age. Some research shows that residents of retirement communities or senior living facilities experience significantly less loneliness than other who stayed in their own homes. Another option is shared housing, Golden Girls style.
  • Replace friends you have lost; seek younger friends. Engage in social activities, volunteer to be with other people.  Men especially are vulnerable to loss of work friendships when they retire. (More about this in another post).
  • Make a plan for your retirement life. Start by asking yourself what will give you meaning and purpose.  Then pursue activities that will fulfill that plan, starting even before you retire.  In those activities, you will meet others who share your purpose, and with whom you can build lasting relationships.

How can we help others who are isolated and lonely?

  • We can help others – our family members or neighbors – by checking in with them. Just a phone call every day to see if our neighbor or friend is OK is reassuring.  Or, go further by making regular visits.
  • The flip side of this is to encourage the home-bound senior to initiate check-in calls to others. This not only provides social contact, it can give meaning and purpose to the home-bound person. The local senior center, office on aging or house of worship can give you names of people who would be happy to receive calls.
  • Health care providers and social workers need to be not only checking on their clients’ social networks, but have a network to connect them to others- to activities and services in the community. I was discussing a news story with one of our Senior Center social workers about an elderly person who had died and not found for some time.  Her response – “that is a social worker’s worst nightmare.”
  • Some articles have discussed using technology – email, social media or Skype as a means of combating isolation and loneliness in home-bound seniors. This can work if the senior has the technical skills to use the technology, and can afford it.  However, he or she will probably need assistance in setting up the system, and training in using it, not to mention encouragement along the way.  Getting used to something new can be quite difficult in older years.

Loneliness is bad for your health

A recently published research paper confirms what we already know from experience:  Loneliness and social isolation are hazardous to your heart health. Researchers in Britain conduced a meta analysis[1] (a research of the research) of the data in 23 research papers and found that poor social relationships increased the risk of developing coronary heart disease  by 29% and that there was a 32% increase in risk of stroke.  These risks are higher than for obesity or inactivity .  They defined social isolation as having few social contacts, and loneliness as feeling unhappy about the social relationships one does have (or lack of them).  Other research has shown that loneliness can contribute to earlier mortality from all causes.

The researchers identified three ways in which a lack of social relationships affect health over time: behaviors such as physical inactivity, smoking, and alcoholism; psychological factors such as reduced coping skills and lower self-esteem, and physiological aspects such as reduced immune function and high blood pressure.

Earlier studies have proposed that social relationships may provide resources to buffer the effect of stressors and help the individual adapt to changing conditions.  They may also directly or indirectly model and support healthy behaviors, and give the individual roles and experiences that give purpose and meaning to his or her life.

There is a difference between being alone and being lonely.  It is a matter of quality, not quantity.  A person can be lonely in a crowd or with a spouse or caregiver, or conversely, be perfectly happy to be alone.   The important distinction is how one feels about it.  Obviously, those at greatest risk are those who live alone.

In my next blog, I will discuss some ways to prevent loneliness and isolation in retirement and later years.

[1] The paper was published in the July 2016 issue of the British journal Heart.