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Commentary: Aging gracefully is a many-faceted reality

Just an hour from Buffalo at the University of Rochester, researchers collaborated with other experts from Brandeis University to study, as the song goes, “staying alive.” They targeted one segment of longevity—those who didn’t have college degrees.

Nicolas Turiano, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at the UR, and his colleagues published the study in the American Psychological Association’s Health Psychology journal. For 14 years, they tracked over 6000 participants between 25 and 75 years of age. It was part of the National Survey of Midlife in the United States.

They discovered that for the part of the population without a college education they studied, it mattered that participants perceived that they had the ability to influence their own lives. When this perception of their ability develops and how it develops wasn’t part of this study.

But other researchers who work with a more general population of seniors have demonstrated that developing the ability to create a meaningful later life takes more than one path. Edmund Sherman, author of Contemplative Aging, notes that some seniors thrive best by finding an advanced and deep understanding of meaningful events—even when tragic or troubling or historically important—in their lives.

Western attitudes and values tend to expect an outgoing sort of altruism from seniors, ranging from individuals casually making sure their neighbors are okay in a snowstorm to purposeful generativity, bringing along the next generation by passing along skills and methods to them, and by mentoring them.

But developmental psychologists also point out that the stage called “Integrity v. Despair” in human development is founded on transcending both the emotional losses and the triumphs of a life.

In his 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Why Survive: Being Old in America, Robert N. Butler brought together all these threads as key to meaning in later life: the perceived control over one’s own life, the ability to form new social networks, and the reflection on a life fully lived. But when it comes to thinking there is only one way to accomplish these, there is no there there.

Butler was the founding director of the National Institute on Aging of the National Institute of Health, and established the first U.S. medical school department of geriatrics. He has been quoted online from his book:
“Human beings need the freedom to live with change, to invent and reinvent themselves a number of times through their lives.”

Linda Chalmer Zemel is the publisher and editor of the literary journal, “Person, Place, Thing.” She teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She is a UR graduate.