The Trouble with Successful Aging
By Drew Leder
from the Park Ridge Center Quarterly (Oct./Nov., 1998)



When a householder sees his skin wrinkled, and his hair white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest…Let him always be industrious in reciting the Veda…In summer, let him expose himself to the heat of five fires, during the rainy season live under the open sky, and in winter be dressed in wet clothes, thus gradually increasing the rigour of his austerities…[Then] after abandoning all attachment to world objects…let him always wander alone, without any companion, in order to attain final liberation.

The Laws of Manu
G. Buhler (trans.)


How can we age well? In this century alone, life expectancy in the United States increased from forty-seven to seventy-six years. Of all the human beings who have ever reached age sixty-five and beyond, about half are currently alive. But what's the point of this elongated lifespan? How can we put it to profitable use as individuals, and as a society?

John Rowe and Robert Kahn provide some answers in their new book, Successful Aging (Pantheon, 1998). Summarizing over a decade of research supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the book defines successful aging as manifested by: 1) a low risk of disease and disease-related disability; 2) a high level of mental and physical functioning; and 3) a continuing active engagement with life. The MacArthur study involved some sixteen researchers and helped generate nearly one hundred scientific publications concerning how to meet such goals. "In sum, we were trying to pinpoint the many factors that conspire to put one octogenarian on cross-country skis and another in a wheelchair" (xii). Who can quarrel with this vision of good health, high function, and an active lifestyle as defining the good old age?

The Laws of Manu, for one. This Hindu text quoted above (penned around 100 B.C.-100 A.D.) presents a radically alternative vision. In fact, it almost seems a brief for unsuccessful aging from the Western point of view. To head off to the forest when your hair turns white, and you become a grandparent--and there, expose yourself to brutal summer heat, and in winter, to don wet clothes--this would do little to safeguard health. And instead of seeking to be engaged with life, the Hindu strives for disengagement. Active engagement, according to Rowe and Kahn, involves participation in a social network, and in productive work "that creates goods and services of value" (p. 47). Yet this is precisely what the forest-dweller flees. Age has granted permission to cast off the myriad duties of midlife. "Abandoning all attachment to worldly objects," one is liberated to focus on life's truest goal--achieving union with God.

Let us call this a model of "spiritual aging," as opposed to "successful aging" conventionally defined. The spiritual model is based on the primacy of the transcendent. There is something greater than the ego-self, be that called God, eternal soul, the Tao, Buddha-Nature, or any of a thousand names. In the prime of life, we often neglect this Source. We're so absorbed by earning money, advancing careers, and raising children that we've little time for anything else. Nor need we turn our thoughts toward an afterlife. In youth, it seems we'll live forever.

Yet age throws all this into question. Despite all our vitamin, exercise, and beauty regimens, the body ineluctably decays. Nor is our mind impervious to slippage--what was I saying just now? Then, too, are social losses. The kids move away, friends and colleagues disappear, and loved ones we treasure may die. At work, we no longer inhabit the peak of the food chain. Our sense of power, prestige, and productivity take a hit as we're surpassed by various young turks.

"Successful aging," according to our Western model, involves combating such losses as best as we can. The model of "spiritual aging" involves embracing them as a curriculum for the soul.

Age challenges us to see beyond the ego-self, now falling into disrepair. Who am I, if not just this wrinkled face in the mirror? If not just "mom," now that the children are grown up? If not the "Vice-President of Finance," now that I'm semi-retired? What is the true self that transcends all these limited models? Is there something infinite and eternal reaching even beyond the grave? According to the spiritual model, truly successful aging involves confronting such questions head on.

As I discuss in Spiritual Passages, different traditions teach different routes to wholeness in life's second half. The Hindu renunciate, as we have seen, sets off on a contemplative quest. Yet the Native American elder remains within the bosom of the tribe, serving as spiritual and political guide. The Buddhist cultivates an awareness of suffering and death. The Biblical story of Abraham and Sarah stresses instead the goodness of life. In their elder years, this couple undergoes a geographical dislocation, a change of name and identity, even an unexpected pregnancy. Their child, Isaac (from the Hebrew yitzchak--"to laugh") is a symbol of the joyful rebirth possible even in later life.

Despite such differences, these cultures share a vision of aging spiritually, and of becoming an elder-sage. Such a person, wise yet playful, detached yet compassionate, is a blessing to the community. Our own society, with all its violence, injustice, and alienation, stands in desperate need of such elder-sages. We tend to fear the "graying of America" as a drain on social resources. But as Schacter-Shalomi suggests, in From Age-ing to Sage-ing, all these gray-heads may prove a valuable resource to a planet run amuck.

But just getting old doesn't mean we'll become true "elders." This demands a process of spiritual growth which Successful Aging doesn't address. Rowe and Kahn tell the secrets of that "octogenarian on cross-country skis,"
and how to avoid being that other "in a wheelchair." The latter becomes a symbol of failure, the necessary corollary to this vision of success.

Things look different from a spiritual perspective. The cross-country skier may be a shallow chap despite having powerful thighs. Conversely, the wheelchair-bound elder might be richer of soul. Disability may have attuned this person to the suffering of others, fostering a deep compassion. Perhaps she also learned to let others help her, a lesson in humility. And who knows how she spends those long hours sitting? Maybe it's a time for inward meditation, or intercessory prayer for the world.

Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be on skis. No reason to go looking for suffering when it finds us all in due time. For those wishing to take good care of body and mind, Rowe and Kahn's book is an excellent owner's manual. After reading about the salutary effects of exercise I went for a brisk walk, followed by a swim, and immediately felt better for it.

Nor should we minimize the spiritual benefits of a healthy mind and body, and or having a rich circle of friends. This can provide the optimal environment for inner work and outer service.

Still, the conventional model of "successful aging" remains incomplete. It is neither necessary to, nor sufficient for, the quest for spiritual wholeness. There will always be bestsellers that teach us how to battle age, and fend off that enemy, death. But sacred traditions, East and West, teach a different lesson: to befriend these erstwhile foes. Amidst the losses of age are precious lessons and graces. To find these is to age successfully, whether in a wheelchair or on cross-country skis.

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