Frame Magazine


Many people assume that retirement and successful aging are somehow the same, or at least intertwined together. However, they are not synonymous and in fact, are two very different factors that don’t simply merge together as people make the transition from work-life to home -life. One of the initial factors that keeps retirement and successful aging separate from each other has to do with the concept of aging itself.  Yes, we all age, but many people don’t perceive the need to “age well” or at least age better until they reach retirement.  Making it appear like a linear process where one works through life, starts retirement, and then a few years later, begins to focus on aging well. This is evident in conversations and workshops that I have conducted with baby boomers who identify their health as an area they need to improve, but often put it off with statements such as “When I’m retired, I’m going to walk every day… I’ll be at the gym every morning… or I’ll eat better and drink more water.” While retirement may provide more time to work-out and prepare healthier meals, it doesn’t come with any special fairy dust that suddenly provides extra motivation, desire, or discipline.  In fact, retirement tends to magnify the existing behaviors and habits of people, not change them.  Therefore, retirement doesn’t foster or lead to successful aging, it can actually work against it. The foundations for “successful aging” date back to 1950 but didn’t become popular until the late 1990s when John W. Rowe, MD, and Robert L. Kahn, PhD, published the book, Successful Aging.  Their research played an important role in changing the stigma surrounding old age, moving the conversation from the negative aspects of decline to the productive and positive aspects of aging. As part of their work they defined successful agers as having:

– No disease or disease-related disability and a low risk of developing either
– High mental and physical ability
– An “active engagement with life,” meaning good relationships and productive activities

As you might expect, studies suggest that when older people are judged solely on this model, less than a fifth make the cut.  Fortunately, additional research has been added to Rowe and Kahn’s work, building on the concept to include aspects of physical, mental, and social components to name a few. This broader model highlights two additional factors about retirement and successful aging that don’t get enough attention.  The first is that mental health is just as important as physical health.  In other words, aging well in retirement isn’t just about exercise and what people are eating, but also the things that can eat at them.  This is supported by studies that have shown that depression and strain can be just as detrimental as poor physical health. Second, most people understand the importance of interacting with others, but when it comes to life in retirement and making the most of it, social interactions and social support become more important than ever.  Researchers have established that loneliness can lead to a decline in physical activities, which is obviously bad for aging well.  Scholars also suggest that the quality of one’s connections are more important than the number of them. Meaning it’s not about having a large social network, but rather, one in which a retiree can feel supported and encouraged. Another issue at hand, has to do with semantics.  The term “successful aging” can be very subjective and imply one is failing if they don’t meet certain criteria.  As a result, terms such as successful adaption, productive aging, or positive aging have also been used to make the concept more applicable and inclusive. As a result, people have some flexibility and can choose what successful aging means to them. New data supports this as for most senior citizens, subjective quality of life is more important than the absence of disease and other objective measures relating to physical health.  Thus, opening the door for people to be more intentional in planning for all of the non-financial aspects of life after work. Overall, understanding the link between retirement and successful aging is important because successful aging begins well before retirement and needs to extend beyond the physical aspects. Furthermore, if future retirees want both successful aging and retirement to work in concert together, it’s essential to start now and develop a definition that is inclusive and supportive to one’s personal situation and capabilities. Retirement today is more about you than your money.