Paper 4: Social Structure and Successful Aging

Christine L. Fry
Professor Emerita of Anthropology
Loyola University of Chicago

Introduction

The first two papers in this series provided a brief history of the conceptualization of successful aging followed by a summary of key papers in a historical sequence.  As noted in the first definition paper, an important criticism of the model produced by the McArthur successful aging project is the sociological and contextual impact is lacking (Riley, et. al, 1972).  The degree of departure from usual physical, psychological, and social aging in defining successful aging needs to be interpreted from the standpoint of the society in which the individual resides and ages.  Our environment also defines our levels of development, and different environments over one’s lifetime accentuate, limit, or circumscribe our potentials.  This paper outlines the complexity of our environment in terms of social structure and networks, as well as individual differences in exchanges, interdependency, kinship, and support systems over one’s lifetime.  The paper provides another level of complexity of aging in which successful aging is defined.

Social Structure and Successful Aging

Social and cultural contexts in which lives unfold clearly constitute opportunities or obstacles which may or may not culminate in a good old age.  From the beginning of Gerontology, old age has been seen as a problematic life stage, especially in the economically developed nations of the 20th and 21st centuries.  A sizable body of cross-cultural research addressed the issues of the welfare of older adults through such variables as roles, statuses, treatment, or prestige in a variety of societies (Amos, 1981; Maxwell, 1986; Maxwell & Maxwell, 1980, Maxwell, Silverman, & Maxwell, 1982; Simmons, 1945).  Non-industrial societies with economies based on foraging, pastorialism and horticulture were compared to those that were industrializing and those with fully industrialized economies (Cowgill, 1986; Cowgill & Holmes, 1972).   Results demonstrated that some societies placed older people at risk for abuse and death (Glascock, 2009).  Industrialization, contrary to hypothesized expectations, promoted conditions that favored a good old age for some, but not for all.

From present perspectives, this early research could be considered fairly crude, but it was truly path breaking.   One difficulty was that societies were conceptualized as monolithic entities.  Conventional wisdom from intellectual giants such as Durkheim (1893) viewed society as prior existing; external to individuals; and coercive on their behavior.  Individuals are bound to “social things” through norms which act as an adhesive of belief and feelings of how things ought to be.  In fact, one of the theoretical concerns of social gerontology is that older adults are at risk of social exclusion because of retirement, residential segregation in retirement communities and other age homogenous settings, and exclusion from markets because of decreased purchasing power (Phillipson, 2007).  One very controversial theory of “Disengagement” explicitly articulated these concerns into a social process (Cumming & Henry, 1961).  Dissatisfaction with the idea of disengagement and older people ultimately triggered another line of research.  We now view societies as groups of interdependent individuals occupying a geographic space bounded locally with connections to national and global entities.  Older people are actively engaged with these webs of interdependency.

In the animal kingdom, humans are not the only creatures to engage in interdependency and social life.  Nearly all mammals live in social groups.  The main benefits for social life are in access to mates and defense from predation.  Humans complicate this picture somewhat in that food is an object of interdependency.  Although not the only animals to do so, humans are noted for the provisioning and sharing of food.  This creates a division of labor by gender and age based on food and strategies to obtain it.  Usually it is man the hunter and woman the gatherer.  Divisions of labor are more than about the provisioning of food.  Interdependency is about all sorts of things ranging from the exchange of material things and services to encouragement and even conflict.  Above all co-dependency is about ties of individuals to a social field and a social order.

Interdependency and Social Integration

Social integration is a difficult topic.  The difficulty lies in the types of societies in which integration became problematic.  The nation states that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries faced challenges in the invention of new arrangements.   Social integration and the maintenance of social order are huge issues for these societies because of the sheer scale (size and complexity), heterogeneity, and wealth disparities of the populations they encompass.  Social and behavioral sciences emerged not only to understand these comparatively new social orders, but with some urgency to resolve emerging social issues including that of old age.  By the late 20th century scholars were describing these polities as “imagined communities.”

People don’t live in imaginary communities.  They live in real communities.  By employing some of the insights gained through social anthropological investigations of smaller scaled societies, we can understand the elementary principles which bind individuals to a larger social whole. Social attachments are foraged through a variety of exchanges that compel people to continue with the existing arrangements. Investigations of the simplest societies impressed anthropologists with the predominance of kinship.  In fact, in many societies there was nothing beyond social networks based on genealogical connections reckoned through descent and marriage.  Exchange among kin preceded in a pattern of generalized reciprocity and sharing over a long period of time, often a life time.  However, in societies that are politically organized with larger populations, other principles of exchange integrate the more complex whole.  Tribute, taxation and other principles of redistribution link social units and their members into a political hierarchy.  Markets facilitate the exchange between non-kin by equalizing the transaction in the present or providing a legal framework through which debt obligations may be discharged in the future.

Although societies are integrated through social networks of exchange, this notion presents its own challenges for the creation of ethnographic models.  Networks are by definition egocentric.  By bringing individuals to the forefront, we potentially are overwhelmed by idiosyncrasies and expediencies in responding to diverse circumstances.  On the other hand, it is possible to examine the opportunities and constraints in those networks that shape the ways in which individuals try to manage their lives.

In the sections which follow we will examine configurations of social networks involved in the promotion of social integration for older people into a society and local community.  It is our contention that along with the biological, health and cognitive dimensions successful aging is encouraged though continued exchange and inclusion in a social order.  Social networks will provide opportunities for individuals to pursue or they constitute risks that inhibit successful aging.  Above all, it is through engagement with others, that humans find compensation for difficulties with their bodies and minds. We discuss the divisions of labor and interdependency within, 1) the economic basis of social life, 2) domestic life, and 3) the public arena of local communities.

Divisions of Labor and the Economic Basis for Social Life

All economies promote important aspects of successful aging in that these interdependencies sustain the necessities of life itself.  Some economic systems work better than others simply because more wealth is generated.  For instance, subsistence based on foraging and a division of labor by gender and age does not produce much wealth.  In fact, accumulation of material wealth is discouraged through the combination of mobility requirements and social leveling to enforce the reciprocity and sharing.  Despite material scarcity, foraging as a way of life enabled the earliest humans to adapt to a wide variety of environmental conditions and to inhabit almost the entire globe at the end of the last ice age.  With a fairly steady, but modest population increase over some two million years, it appears that the main beneficiaries of a division of labor based on foraging are reproductive adults and their offspring.  If longevity is an indicator of successful aging, this type of economy does not work well for older people.  We find no evidence of older individuals in the fossil record until around 60,000 years before the present at the time of Archaic Homo sapiens and anatomically modern humans.

On the other hand, some economic systems are invented to address the issues of famine and difficulties of material scarcity.  Through more sedentary life styles, agricultural production of food, and storage technologies, wealth accumulation is not only possible, it is encouraged.  To generate wealth, labor has to be mobilized and coordinated.  To make adults work harder, longer, and on a schedule, hierarchical relations organize the division of labor.  Hierarchy based in production results in wealth differentials.  Poverty is the friend of no one, but certainly is even more problematic in old age.

With the advent of increasing industrialization, a form of poverty known as “old age poverty” compromised the prospects of successful aging for many older adults (Haber, 1993).  This is a product of the reorganization of the interdependency within labor forces.  Workers became “free” of the constraints and protections of a feudal or archaic organization of society.  Subjects of a king or a lord became citizens with the rights and obligations to work.  Instead of working the land and sharing the crops, workers sell their time and skills for wages.  Wages enable interdependencies with other workers through markets to obtain necessities and occasional luxuries. Many workers are hindered by segmentation of the labor market with lower incomes as a result of gender, race, ethnicity and social class.  Older workers, furthermore, find disadvantages as wages either decline or are lost.  Market based exchange concomitantly becomes problematic.  Unless wages are sufficient to defer income to old age through savings or a financial plan such as pensions or insurance, troubled old age is the result.  For those affected, part of the dilemma is resolved through other forms of interdependency namely familial reciprocity and the redistributive wealth of the state.

Interdependency and Domestic Arrangements

Families have always been the primary arena for the social connections that define daily life.  Infants are born into a social world of kin with whom they will or may interact with in changing ways across their entire life course.  Although families appear to be universal, they are highly variable to the point of defying simple definition.  As the basic reproductive and nurturing unit for children that are slow maturing, families are highly adaptable and accommodate to a wide variety of changing circumstances.  Yet, there are a limited number of ways in which kinship is delineated and membership assigned.  The two primary ways of reckoning kin affiliation is through 1) unilineal and, 2) bilateral descent.  The options available for senior members are quite different depending on the type of descent.

Unilineal descent is noted for group formation through the use of genealogical connections.  Children of the favored gender (males in patrilineal or females in matrilineal) enter the core of the descent group.  Their opposite sexed siblings marry out forming alliances with other such groups.  These lineages or clans are corporate in nature with membership well defined in cooperation (or conflict) with their kin in managing and exploiting fixed resources (land or herding animals).  As the core members age, they ascend to the genealogical apex of their lineage.  With seniority comes power and influence as a product of both age and experience.  Quite some time ago (1976), this observation led Jack Goody to argue that descent groups promoted a form of gerontocracy.  Although elders may be leaders, gerontocracy is a little misleading since the beneficiaries are not only older people, but all their kin.

Bilateral descent is noted for its individuation and fissioning of family units.  The groups that are formed tend to be flexible and permeable as they seek both maternal and paternal connections.  Bilateral kindreds are adaptable under circumstances of high mobility where individuals need to move between locations where food or work is available.  Two generation households are the most common, but as children marry and form their own families, single generation older household units are not unusual.  Bilateral kinship works well for all and especially for older people under conditions of high fertility (Fry 2004, 2007).  More children mean more relatives with whom to connect and exchange.  With reduced fertility, seniority may well bring isolation and exchange between household units that are only distantly related.  The risks of such isolation are made starkly clear among bilateral foragers who, when facing famine and scarcity, make hard decisions in abandoning their oldest relatives.  This is certainly could be considered an example of unsuccessful aging.

Much has been written about the changing nature of kinship and issues of aging in the late 20th century.  A majority of this literature is of an alarmist nature.  Such issues as declining fertility, outrageous divorce rates, high rates of never married, increases in single parenthood, changing definitions of marriage and even new reproductive technologies would appear to threaten the future of kinship.  Yet the generalized reciprocity that has always characterized familial exchanges continues.  As with most things this works best when economies are prosperous.  When economic times are stressful, it is most likely the generations with the resources who promote the well-being of kin in need.  Sometimes it is successful elders who continue to enable their children to live more comfortable lives.

Interdependency and Local Communities

All humans live in a localized geographic territory in what is variously defined as communities.  Generally the social organization of a community is the public culture that exists beyond the private domains of kinship.  Public cultures are a combination of political structures and self generated organizations.  The civic culture not only makes a community a more interesting place in which to live, but constitutes an important arena for interdependency, social interaction and social exchange.

The political structure of a community is designed to promote the welfare of the residents.  Political structures are notably variable, but the central feature all polities have in common is a social hierarchy of power and wealth.  Through the interdependency brought about by the redistribution of wealth and the organization promoted by that redistribution, all communities work to prevent the unimaginable from happening.  When disasters happen available wealth and labor are mobilized in an attempt to set things right.  Regardless if one is a follower of a “big man” or a chief; or the subject of a king; or a citizen of a nation state, membership brings some degree of protection, rights and obligations.  To live outside the order created by these polities is to be beyond the pale or on a frontier where social structure is minimal or tribal.

Polities create a legal and taxation framework to accomplish the tasks of a state.  This ranges from the organization of the economy; to the generation of wealth; to investment in the economic infrastructure (transportation, energy, public services); to the defense of or conquest of like polities.  Certainly, much of the longevity revolution in the 20th century is attributed to state investment in such things as public health, sanitation and medicine.  Most of the nation states in Europe and North America and increasingly Asia have legislation in place which redistributes wealth to their older citizens in the form of state pensions (Social Security in the U.S.), state subsidized health care or health insurance (Medicare and Medicaid in the U.S.) along with state mandated programs to fund services for older adults.  All of this is designed to promote the successful aging as a right of citizenship.

Communities, especially localized communities and residential neighborhoods, constitute the arenas in which the public culture is created.  Although subject to national and global influences, it is at the local level where people engage in the interdependence that comprises the culture of a community.  Localized communities are highly variable depending on size, economic functions and historical circumstances.  Within this diversity we find crisscrossing networks of formalized organizations and informal networks of friends and neighbors.  Local governments call upon their citizens to staff special-function boards such as for the library, parks, public safety, schools, historical celebrations, senior centers, and even tree boards.  Other organizations are largely self organized and independent of government sponsorship.  Religious organizations, service clubs, and a wide variety of voluntary associations (car clubs, photography clubs, card clubs and the like) are a few examples.

The effects of the independency within a localized community upon successful aging are at best poorly understood.  Communities have been an early and long standing interest within gerontology.  However, most of our research has explored social arenas where older people are to be found.  Age homogenous communities such as retirement communities, high rise public housing, assisted living facilities and nursing homes are quite well studied.  For age heterogeneous communities the picture is less clear.  We know that in some communities, older people are quite invisible (Keith, et. al. 1994).  In other communities, older people are very visible since they run the community.  However, they most likely do not appear to be old since they are actively engaged in the public culture.

Successful Aging: “Aging-In” or “Aging-Out”

Old age is not a static stage of the life course.  Age is temporal and has been happening since birth.  Because age is time related, it is very difficult to separate successful adulthood from successful aging.  Decisions, happenings, opportunities and challenges that take place early in the life course have effects on the circumstances of living in old age.  To illustrate this, I select the life of a woman now in her mid 90’s who most of her peers would consider to be very successful in old age.  I came to know her as a part of an ethnographic study of community and aging in the small town of Momence, Illinois (one of 7 communities in Project AGEsup>1. –Keith, et. al.1994)). When I first encountered her she was in her mid 60’s.  She and her husband had recently moved from modest housing into one of the grand homes in town.  Together they had created a sizable business empire.  Most people in town looked up to May (pseudonym) and her husband as belonging to the elite both locally and regionally.  They certainly were among the few families who had accumulated considerable wealth.  May had helped in the businesses by serving as a bookkeeper and clerking at the one operation that was located in Momence.  Both she and her husband were involved in local organizations, a church, and boards of public institutions within and in the region beyond Momence.

May is considered to be successful in old age mostly because she was active in the public culture of Momence and visible on a nearly daily basis.  Part of her success is explained by wealth, but she and her husband rarely flaunted it by leading quite private lives.  Over the 30 years I have known her, she has suffered a number of fairly major setbacks.  In her 60’s she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis with marked deformation of her joints. In her 70’s she became a widow and since she had no children she assumed the management of the several businesses.  She contracted a serious heart infection which landed her in a hospital for a long time followed by rehabilitation in a nursing home.  The challenges of surgeries and recuperations were met with the assistance of a younger sister who moved in for the duration.  In her late 80’s she lost confidence in her driving abilities and sold her car.  To get to board meetings she relied on employees.  Her shopping was accomplished through an employee who drove her to where she needed to go or who picked up her groceries for her.  For club events, members simply invited her to go with them.  Until her early 90’s May was visible nearly every day having breakfast with 3 other older women at a local restaurant.  This unfortunately ended when two of her friends died or became too disabled to eat out.

For all her increasing frailities May remained a visible part of the public culture of Momence.  On her landmark birthdays, the local paper ran an item with her picture on the front page.  At the age of 92 she was appointed Parade Marshall for the major local festival and escorted to the reviewing stand in an antique car.  Above all she remains in the local gossip as the few peers and her juniors express interest in her life.  Her most recent health issue was a broken leg as a result of osteoporosis combined with unsteadiness when wind blew a car door against her.  This resulted in a very long hospital stay and over a half a year in a nursing home.  Again she managed to return home.  This time she now has a live in care giver of Asian descent.  Her living room has now been converted to a bedroom with the addition of a bed.  The last time I saw her, she was sitting on her porch.  She said she spends a lot of time on her porch since her “girl” helps her out there when the weather is good.  While we chatted her eyes scanned the intersecting streets in front of her house which was quite busy since a parade was forming a couple of blocks away.  People would greet her and then she would talk about their past and what their children were doing.  I realized that May’s social world was shrinking, but see was still engaged from the vantage point of the porch.

The story of May illustrates the complexities of successful aging if we consider aging as a process.  Clearly, for nearly four decades she has faced physical challenges (disease and functional declines), but has retained a clear mind and memory.  The physical problems combined with her longevity have taken their toll on her abilities to remain connected to the social arena in which she has lived her entire life.  Is she aging successfully?  There is no simple answer.  May is involved in two processes working in opposite directions.  These I identify as “aging-out” and “aging-in.”

“Aging-out” may be roughly equated to the theory of disengagement that was proposed over 50 years ago.  In this theory it was proposed that a mutual withdrawal of individual and society resulted in a state of accommodation and lack of norms.  In the context of successful aging, aging-out becomes the end point or series of end points of unsuccessful outcomes on a majority of dimensions (health, functionality, cognition, social engagement).  Aging-out is not accommodation or mutual withdrawal.

Aging-out has been used to describe transitions that do involve age and time.  For instance, because of Medicaid and Social Security rules, children in Foster Care programs age-out into adulthood usually around the age of 18.  Organizations too can age-out.  When the membership grows old together, but are unable to recruit younger members, they will eventually face issues of continuing their association.  With dwindling members and more disabled members, the group eventually decides either to disband or modify their collective purpose and activities.  They have aged-out.

Individuals age-out as well.  What they are outing is a social arena.  As can be expected, there are a wide variety of exits. Among the most disturbing from the perspective of wealthy industrialized societies is the prevalence of death hastening found in over half of non-industrial societies sampled (Glascock, 2009).  Every society has rites of passage for the death of its members and its aftermath.

For “aging-in” it is a little difficult to draw the parallel with activity theory simply because it is more complex.  Proactive individuals use resources in their social arena or devise new ones to avoid aging-out.  “Aging in place” is a strategy used for people to remain in their own homes in spite of increasing difficulties.  A part of aging in place is the retention of social connections to the community in which they are living and in which they have previously invested.  Aging-in is more than place and connections.  It is a process that individuals have been engaged in since birth.  First they grow up into a world of other people as they figure out how that world works.  As adults they are actors in that world and use networks and connections to accomplish all sorts of things and continue the life course and aging-in.  Aging-out is the flip side to aging-in.  As oppositional processes aging-in works to integrate individuals to a social order, while aging-out removes them from that order.

Integration requires a combination of knowledge, opportunities, personnel, and pathways into a social world.  “Cultural scripts” and “cultural spaces” (Sokolovsky, 2009), describe the paths connecting elders to a cultural world and a place in that world.

Sometimes these pathways are existing and traditional.  Change can threaten the traditional and necessitate the creation of new opportunities (Keith, 2009).  In the age homogeneity of retirement communities, new cultural spaces and new opportunities have emerged along with established connections.  In Project AGE, we asked our participants to describe older people who they considered to be doing well (successful) in old age.  In the American communities (Momence and Swarthmore) we found the term “active” was used with very high frequency to describe older people who were doing well and as a pathway into their respective communities (Fry, et. al., 1997, 2009).  We asked key informants to explain exactly what active means when applied to an older person.  Two elements are the essence of active.  The first ingredient is being socially engaged by participating in social groups such as a church, a club or informal neighboring and card playing.  The second component is being visible in the public stage of the community such as grocery stores, restaurants or in the commercial district.

May is using a cultural pathway to continue aging-in. May was active until her 90s when physical limitations made it difficult to be active.  She also out survived her peers who were the audience with whom she could be visible.  In aging-out, life moves from the public arena and interdependencies found there to the domestic sphere.  At home, the social world shrinks to the generalized reciprocity of kinship.  May’s story also illustrates how complicated aging-in and resisting aging-out can be and how lengthy the process can be.  Her challenges with aging began in her 60’s and became more difficult through her 90s.  It is difficult to simply equate her aging-in with successful aging and her aging-out with unsuccessful aging.  Aging-out is the product of accumulated threats and challenges to performing in a social arena.  People can and do meet those challenges over a very long period of time.  In 2011 May joyfully accepted an invitation to a club Christmas Party and with the help of care givers, she went.  She was the most senior and founding member of the club.  From her wheelchair she visited with everyone and caught up on the local gossip.  If being active is a component of successful aging for Americans, then the logical advice is to continue aging, but don’t age-out.

Social Structure and Successful Aging

In this essay we have taken the position that social life functions to provide networks of interdependency which work for the benefits all those who are included within those networks.  Aging takes place within these webs of interdependency.  Aging- in is a temporal process integrating individuals to this larger order.  Although “being engaged with life” and aging-in have many parallels, aging-in is more inclusive in that it is a temporal process.  Social life, like aging, is temporal.  Interdependency and exchange take place in a temporal framework and are sustained through interaction.  As such, social life is highly fluid and susceptible to change.  This seemingly ephemeral nature of engagement to the social order has its challenges for researchers trying to conceptualize social engagement and even attempting to develop operational definitions.

A fairly common complaint about social life is, “The world as we know it has ended.  These young people keep showing up and they don’t have the sense to know it has ended.”  This is a real threat to continued aging-in since the established pathways may well have vanished.  For instance, in a recent visit to Momence, we had breakfast in a popular local restaurant.  As I looked around, I noted that in the 6 years since we had moved that there had been remarkable change since I recognized no one.  The one exception was a former Mayor, now well into his 90’s, who had served Momence for over 25 years.  He obviously was well connected since he held an important political office and kept the City government working.  As we chatted, he said, “I used to know everyone in town.  Now I know no one.  Momence has seen a lot of strangers move in.”  I took his comment to be a statement of social change and because of his longevity he out survived his peers.  As I looked around, however, I noted he was seated at a table with six men in their 70’s and 80’s.  In my field notes from 30 years ago, I had noted that the proprietor of a local restaurant had informally reserved a table for 8 men in their 80’s who would show up for coffee every weekday morning and hang out until the noon rush.  The restaurant had changed, the table was different, the men were not the same ones, but the pathway for aging-in was still there.

In any consideration of successful aging, it is imperative to consider the social and cultural contexts.  Ethnographically we need to know something about the pathways and connections to the cultural landscape.  On the other hand, the idea of successful aging is a product of two cultural contexts.  The first, we can consider to be a near universal feature of our species.  Often we search antiquity for the early writings on the subject.  But in the deep time of human origins we find that once individuals were able to achieve considerable longevity, those with whom they were interdependent took actions to preserve their welfare.  By 100,000 years before the present, interdependency and social life had become something more than about defense, sex, and food.  We find individuals who had survived injuries such as fractured bones.  We find older individuals who had abscessed dental arcades.  In order to survive on diets of tough food, another individual would have had to chew their food.  Around the same time we also find intentional burials with inclusions of grave goods including stone tools and even flowers.  Also a number fossilized individuals show evidence of red ocher staining their bones.  Red restores the blush of life to faces of the dead.  Although we cannot be certain, such behavior is enticing evidence for self awareness and personhood.  Once humans had an economy with sufficient wealth such as we find in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic of Europe and the Near East, a post reproductive life became possible.  With old age came the quest for a good old age.

Successful aging, as a program is connected to a much more recent cultural context.  Following the Second World War, Gerontology emerged in an expansive moment to address the wellbeing of older people and issues of aging.  The longevity revolution had set in motion demographic changes which were having unknown consequences for societies around the globe.  Cultural responses to impending change are most usually to create knowledge: develop technology: and, to mobilize social networks and a division of labor. As a part of the Gerontological response to increasing numbers of older people with longer lives, successful aging emerged as a public policy imperative to encourage preventative medicine and healthy habits and nutrition.  With improved health, longer lives could be sustained at a higher quality and interventions could be devised to further improve quality of life.  The advice offered by the successful aging framework as it has evolved is quite proverbialsup>2. To be successful at aging, one should be: 1) healthy (free of disease and have good physical function): 2) wealthy (material security); 3) wise (cognitively intact); and 4) social (engaged with living).  With such advice we should ask, what is it that healthy, wealthy, wise, and social older people can do that ill, poor, demented and isolated older people cannot do?  An obvious response is that citizens who are healthy, wealthy, wise and social will continue to lead their lives much as they have in adulthood.  They will look after themselves and their families.

When we take successful aging to the everyday lives of older adults, our agenda cannot be proverbial and direct.  Just as no one ever died of old age; no one is a failure at aging.  Time is not a disease.  Aging is time (Baars, 2007).  Biological, psychological and social processes comprising life all take place in time.  As an agenda, successful aging promotes desirable outcomes.  With outcomes based on temporal processes, the results are predictably unstable.  What may be the best laid plans to be healthy, wealthy, wise, and social, can vanish quite quickly.  Disease, acute and chronic, is usually unanticipated and often catastrophic. Financial planning to provide for future material security evaporates if Wall Street lays an egg. Strokes and Alzheimer’s rob one of their memory and self. The joy of involvement in children’s growth and development can become painful if they become involved in drugs or other self destructive behavior. Also the pleasures of grandparenthood are usually changed when grandchildren move in and grand parenting is transformed into parenting.   With advanced age one out survives spouses, kin, friends, colleagues, and eventually the social world and arena one has been aging-in for an entire lifetime.  If there is any difficulty with successful aging, it may be that the bar is set impossibly high and is monolithic.  Given the uncertainties of change and time, practical issues require compromise.  In accommodation and in diversity of meaning of personhood in old age, we can expect that there are many ways of being healthy, wealthy, wise and social.  Successful aging as an outcome may only be to add goodness to the experiences of old age and to those who are living its challenges.


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1Some of the discussion of measurement is based on the authors’ experience in a major cross-cultural project (Project AGE) designed to examine the linkages between community contexts and pathways to well-being in old age (Keith et al., 1994). Project AGE selected seven communities around the globe.  These are located in Africa (Jo/hoansi  and Herero in Botswana); Ireland (Clifden and Blessington); United States (Momence, IL and Swarthmore, PA); and, 4 neighborhoods in Hong Kong.  Christine L. Fry and Jennie Keith codirected the project with Charlotte Ikels, Anthony Glascock, Jeanette Dickerson-Putman, Henry Harpending and Patricia Draper as PIs.  Project AGE was supported by Grant No. AG03110 through the National Institute on Aging.

2“Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise” is a proverb which is attributed to Benjamin Franklin which appeared in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.  It most likely originated in English proverbs from the 17th century.

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