I can never forget the angry reaction from a
number of seniors right after the key- note address on successful
aging at a major gerontological society convention. The speaker
was a prominent authority on the topic, yet his message was met
with disapproval and even anger from a small group of seniors standing
close to me. These protestors included three or four women, a clergyman
and a lanky, tall white-haired man leaning on a cane. We were standing
at the door because there were no empty seats left inside the lecture
hall. One advantage of being outside was that people could freely
express their opinions without embarrassing the speaker.
The tall elderly gentleman with a cane was visibly
angry to the proposition that successful agers were relatively free
from disease and disability. "How about those on wheelchairs or
using a walker! That would make us failures!" he said, shaking his
head. Those with him were in total agreement with him. Their main
complaint was that the speaker almost exclusively emphasized successful
agers’ physical health and physical activities with no mention of
their spiritual and existential dimensions.
This incident caused me to rethink the meaning
of successful aging: Have the experts on successful aging missed
something important to the aging population? The same question resurfaced
a few years later when I read Rowe and Kahn’s (1995) report on the
MacArthurs Successful Aging Project. They defined successful aging
as ". . . the ability to maintain three key behaviors or characteristics:
(1) Low risk of disease and disease-related disability, (2) high
mental and physical functions and (3) active engagement with life"
(p. 38). By active engagement, they meant such "happy activities"
as relating to others and continuing productive activities. (p.
It is worth-noting that happy activities are
not necessarily productive as defined by Rowe and Kahn (1995): they
"count as productive all activities, paid or unpaid, that create
goods or services of values." (p. 47). They seem to imply that only
activities contributing to the gross national product are considered
productive. But how about spiritual and existential activities,
such as prayer and meditation? How about activities of experiencing
and appreciating nature? Are these activities productive?
In Rowe and Kahn’s (1995) expanded definition
of successful aging, there was also no reference to spirituality
and existential wisdom as contributors to successful aging. This
omission is not surprising, since none of the 16 researchers of
the MacArthurs Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging have
done authoritative research on the spiritual and existential aspects
The Hidden Dimension of Successful
During the past decade, I have consistently
emphasized the importance of meeting the existential and spiritual
needs of seniors (Wong, 1989, 1994, 1998; Wong & Watt, 1993). I
have proposed that personal meaning is the hidden dimension of successful
aging (Wong, 1989), because having a positive meaning and purpose
in life will not only add years to one’s life, but also add life
to one’s years. Without a clear sense of meaning and purpose in
the face of physical decline, longevity may prove to be an unbearable
burden. People need to develop a positive attitude towards life
in order to maintain life satisfaction in the midst of losses and
illness. I have presented a more detailed argument (Wong, 1989):
When many of the major sources of meaning,
such as work, social status, and activity are threatened or diminished,
as in the case of advancing age, the question ‘Why survive?’ becomes
urgent. One’s health and life satisfaction importantly depends
on whether this existential need is met. The main thesis of the
present paper is that discovery/creation of meaning through inner
and spiritual resources is a promising way of transcending personal
losses and despair in old age. (p. 516)
No one would question the benefits of trying
to prolong years of vitality and to compress the time of poor health
to a minimum period (Fries & Crapo, 1981). The problem with this
approach is that it "devalues" those who, for various reasons, cannot
achieve this ideal. Furthermore, even the healthiest may succumb
to chronic disabilities. Is life still worth living in these cases?
In a nutshell, this is the question was probably behind the grumbling
of some the seniors at the gerontological meeting. Cole (1984) has
offered a similar critique of the Western culture, which values
vitality and productivity and devalues the frail and sick. He has
correctly pointed out that increase in longevity as a result of
medical progress has been accompanied "by widespread spiritual malaise
. . . and confusion over the meaning and purpose of life" (p. 329).
The following quote points to the futility of emphasizing physical
vitality without any reference to existential needs:
While many do live through their old age with
personal vigor and integrity, many more suffer from segregation,
desolation, and loss of self in a culture that does not value
the end of life. Today’s ‘enlightened’ view of aging, which encourages
older people to remain healthy, active, independent, etc., has
yet to confront this crucial issue and therefore harbours potentially
pernicious effects . . . . Unless the attack on ageism is applied
to address the existential challenges and tasks of physical decline
and the end of life, we will perpetuate a profound failure of
meaning. (p. 333)
In his best selling book Successful Aging, Novak
(1985) has made much the same point: "There is no secret, no magic
formula. A good old age doesn’t come about from some special talent
or as a secret gift. It comes about when, given a basic income,
reasonable health, good self-esteem and a little energy, a person
sets out to discover a meaningful life for him- or herself." (p.
273). He then goes on to say that merely focussing on physical activities,
such as playing golf or travelling, may have the unexpected negative
effect of covering up "the void of old age and keep people from
coming to grips with the challenge of living beyond middle age.
Meaningless action can short-circuit the chance to discover a good
age" (p. 297).
Thus, the challenge of successful aging is to
discover positive meanings of life and death even when one’s physical
health is failing. We need to address the needs of the frail, the
disabled and the chronically ill; we should not view them as unsuccessful
agers. We need to look deeper and discover what enables one to triumph
over prolonged illness and disability. Yes, the secret to successful
aging for the frail and the dying lies in discovering the transcendental
meaning of life and death.
Numerous authorities on aging (i.e., Birren,
1964; Butler, 1963; Erikson, 1963) have concluded that the search
for personal meaning and integrity becomes crucial for adaptation
in old age. Schulz (1986) pointed out that personal meaning becomes
a major source of life satisfaction and personal growth in old age.
He maintained that existential acceptance may be more adaptive for
the elderly than active striving for personal control.
The Ontario Project on Successful Aging
In our Ontario Project on Successful Aging*,
we defined successful aging in terms of mental and physical health
and adjustment as rated by an interviewer as well as a panel of
psychologists or psychiatrists, a geriatric nurse and a gerontological
recreational worker. The third criterion—adjustment—was based on
the observation of how well they coped with stressful life situations.
A number of the questions were designed to measure the respondent’s
general attitudes towards life and aging.
On the basis of these ratings, we were able
to select successful agers and less successful agers from both the
residential community and institutions for the elderly. We provided
a comprehensive study of various psychosocial factors contributing
to resilience and vitality in old age. These factors include variables
emphasized by Rowe and Kane (1995), such as Healthy Lifestyles and
Social Resources. In addition, we also measured Religiosity, Personal
Meaning, Optimism, Commitment and Coping. The Successful and Less
Successful groups differed significantly in all of these measures.
More importantly, regression analyses showed that personal meaning
was the best predictor of happiness, perceived well being and the
absence of psychopathology and depression. In short, these results
suggest that successful aging is 80% attitude, and 20% everything
On the basis of open-ended interviews with participants
in this project, Wong (1986) concluded that successful agers are
more likely to report positive meanings of life and death as sources
of happiness and life satisfaction. The following are a few examples:
I want to be of value in whatever days left
to me. I want to do it with dignity . . . . When I take my last
breath, I want to be remembered not for any property or valuable
things in a monetary sense, but for what I was capable of doing
and what I have done for others.
This newly retired man was very active in various
seniors’ groups. He was trying to organize various seniors’ organizations
under one umbrella and apply for government funding. He expressed
a strong desire to be "needed, wanted and loved." He wanted to work
hard to benefit others. To him, successful aging was not so much
being engaged as keeping active for a worthy cause. Successful aging
involved serving others and leaving a good legacy.
I still have certain ambitions. I would like
to do something for my country, for the Peterborough area, and
for the Province. We started a while ago back a project called
POP—Preserve Ontario Pickerel. We are great fishermen and we say
that the fishing was going down. So we started this project. We
have now 20, 000 signatures. We also believe that there is the
urgent need for a beautiful art centre. We have started a drive
for membership. Third, the Constitution we have. It is good, but
there is a lot that should and could be done to it. It is not
a people’s constitution. So there are the kind of things I would
be very glad to give the rest of my life to.
At 73 years old, the above successful ager was
still fully engaged with life. His happy activities not only consisted
of golfing, travelling and enjoying himself; he wanted to give all
his energy and the rest of his life to projects that benefited humanity.
His life goals of conservation and civil duties endowed his life
with purpose and passion.
What happens when one becomes frail and institutionalized?
What gives one a sense of meaning and purpose in a nursing home?
One 92-year-old man derived real satisfaction from helping those
who were worse off then he was. His eyes sparked and his voice quivered
with excitement as he talked about the joy of helping others:
I help anyone. If I see a wheelchair waiting
at the elevator or going around and they want a little help, even
though I’m crippled myself, I can do without the walker as long
as I can have the cane. If I see a wheelchair that wants help,
I’ll go and help that wheelchair every time.
The common thread of these successful agers
is that they have a zest for life and a clear sense of meaning and
purpose. They consistently say "Yes" to life and all the trials
of aging. For most of them, their happy activities can be considered
purposeful and altruistic rather than leisurely or economically
productive. They seem to derive energy and satisfaction from serving
others and pursuing a meaningful goal that transcends self-interest.
Another common theme was that the successful
agers had a positive attitude towards life. "Be cheerful and try
to be as happy as you can," advised a 74-year-old senior. "Well,
get out and smile and the world smiles. There is no use grouching
about it," mused an 81-year-old lady.
The following quote was from a 73-year-old man
who brimmed with zest for life. There was an eager anticipation
for each day and each season. He had a profound appreciation for
what life had to offer. This kind of positive attitude towards life
does not allow much room for death anxiety. Here are his words:
I look forward to tomorrow and all the days
to come. You know, tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your
life, so you just take what comes and enjoy it. I look forward
to summer, I look forward to fall, I look forward to winter and
I look forward to next spring when everything starts bursting
A 77-year-old mentioned the importance of being
positive and grateful. He had this to say:
Be thankful for what you have and get the
most out of everyday. Keep a healthy, happy attitude. If you start
thinking about tomorrow and tomorrow’s illness, which is liable
to creep up on you or anyone, then you’re going to spoil today.
Be thankful for what you have today.
Another successful ager summed it up this way:
Your attitude is the biggest part. If you
want to go around with a chip on your shoulder all the time, you’re
going to have health problems—you’re going to think this is wrong
with me or that is wrong with me. But, if you have the right attitude,
and think, well, gee whiz, is this aging or what is it?
Successful agers also demonstrated a positive
attitude towards death and dying. For most of this cohort, the positive
meaning of death was often derived from their religious beliefs.
Here is a quote from a 76-year old man:
What I really look forward to is to see the
culmination of all the experiences of life is when the Lord comes
and we go to be with Him. Then, we are out of this scene. I am
not afraid to die, because I am ready. Life is sweet even at that.
When it comes, I am satisfied that that is it. The Lord knows
best, and I’ll leave that up to him.
Another successful ager talked about how his
Christian faith and his positive attitude helped him face present
difficulties as well as the prospect of dying:
If we have sufficient faith in God, who is
always with us and we are in his hands, I don’t think anyone has
any need to fear the future. We need to come to grips with the
fact that it’s only a problem, if you allow it to be a problem.
If you can accept the fact of our diminishing activities, whatever
they might be, you would realize that there is still life ahead
The untold story of successful aging is about
positive attitudes towards life and death, about the spiritual and
existential quest, and about personal growth in wisdom and spirituality.
From this spiritual, existential perspective, successful aging is
attainable for everyone with positive meanings, regardless of his
or her physical condition.
In the remaining sections of this chapter, I
will discuss (1) the relationship between meaning of life and meaning
of death, and (2) the implications of death attitudes for successful
The Relationship between Meaning
of Life and Meaning of Death
Life teaches us how to survive, while death
teaches us how to live. Life is a taskmaster, while death is a master
teacher. We cannot learn how to appreciate the preciousness of life
without coming to grips with the reality of death. When people spend
so much time in trivial and self-destructive activities, it is often
because they have denied the reality of personal mortality. Firestone
(1994) observes: "Much of people’s destructiveness toward themselves
and others can be attributed to the fact that people conspire with
one another to create cultural imperatives and institutions that
deny the fact of mortality" (p. 221). On the other hand, there also
those who are motivated to make something of their lives before
death puts an end to their aspirations. Thus, how we react to personal
death has considerable impact on how we live.
Tomer (1994) reviews several philosophical approaches
towards death. Each of these philosophies has implications for the
meaning of life. For example, Martin Heidegger's position is that
since death is a threat of non-existence, it provides the precondition
for fuller understanding of life, thereby freeing us from anxiety.
For Sartre, death reduces one’s being to nothingness; therefore,
to reflect on death is to realize the meaninglessness of existence.
However, Neimeyer and Chapman (1980) derive a more positive view
of life from Sartre’s notion of nothingness; they propose that death
anxiety can be reduced through self-actualization. In other words,
those who have realized their central life goals are less likely
to experience death anxiety than those who have not completed their
life tasks are.
Wong, Reker and Gesser (1994) provide a broader
conceptual framework for death attitudes, which include fear of
death, death avoidance, approach acceptance, neutral acceptance
and escape acceptance. Fear of death can be considered the most
powerful and universal death attitude; the other four attitudes
may be considered as the various human attempts to cope with death
There are many reasons for fear of death. Some
of the common reasons are fear of the pain of dying, fear of separation,
fear of the unknown, fear of divine judgement. According to Goodman
(1981), "The existential fear of death, the fear of not existing,
is the hardest to conquer. Most defensive structures, such as the
denial of reality, rationalization, insulation, erected to ward
off religiously conditioned and separation-abandonment fears do
not lend themselves readily as protective barriers against the existential
fear of death" (p. 5). Another type of the existential fear is that
death comes before one has lived a meaningful life. Butler (1963)
even suggests that people are more afraid of a meaningless existence
than of death.
The effects of fear of death are complex and
pervasive. At one extreme, fear of death may lead to intentionally
confronting death in extreme sports or on the battlefield—by staring
death in the eye. Individuals may have the exhilarating feelings
of being free from the iron grip of fear of death. At the other
extreme, individuals may live very cautiously in a protected "bubble"—they
are extremely safety conscious and don’t want to try anything. Such
extreme reactions clearly do not contribute to successful aging.
Even less extreme forms of death anxiety are
unhealthy. Preoccupation with mortality and worries about death
and dying will rob one of the joys of living. In deed, we have found
that fear of death as measured by the Death Attitude Profile - Revised
(DAP-R) was negatively correlated with psychological well being
as well as positive meanings of life and death, and positively correlated
with depression. Positive meanings were measured by the semantic
differential (SD) method with 7-point bipolar adjectives (e.g.,
meaningful-meaningless, satisfying-dissatisfying, pleasant-unpleasant,
etc.). These bipolar scales were used to provide SD ratings for
life and death.
Fear of death can lead to unconscious avoidance,
which expresses itself in different ways: living in a drunken stupor,
treating death as a taboo subject, refusing to even think about
it, or living in the illusion of perpetual youth through cosmetic
surgery. However, the most common manifestation of death avoidance
is probably the pursuit of busy but trivial activities, as if life
would go on forever.
At the heart of death avoidance is denial. Unfortunately,
the psychological defense of denial and avoidance eventually fails
in the face of mounting evidence of aging and dying. That is why,
sooner or later, people need to come to some form of death acceptance
in order to overcome the fear of death
We have identified three types of death acceptance:
neutral acceptance, approach acceptance and escape acceptance (Gesser,
Wong, & Reker, 1987; Wong, Reker, & Gesser, 1994). Escape acceptance
is very different from other two types of acceptance because it
is based on problems of life rather than fear of death. Even the
prospect of hell after death seems more tolerable than the pain
of earthly life. In other words, when one finds life unbearable,
suicide seems a more attractive alternative.
There are many reasons why people say: "I see
death as a relief from the burden of life." More often than not,
their burden has to do with the crushing weight of meaninglessness
rather than physical suffering. In such situations, suicide becomes
a cry for meaning. In other situations, people contemplate suicide
because they have a very low tolerance for suffering and do not
know how to cope with it.
Neutral acceptance refers to coming to terms
with the inevitable reality of personal mortality, no matter how
uncomfortable one may feel. All living things must die. Death is
just a natural cycle of life. One has to accept this fact as the
cognitive level, and then gradually adjust to it as the affective
Neutral acceptance can have different effects
on how one lives. Some may feel that since life is short, they indulge
in hedonic pleasure—"let’s eat and be merry, because tomorrow we
die." These individuals have accepted death only at the cognitive
level, because deep down in their hearts they remain anxious about
the finality of death and the termination of that they hold dear.
A more positive type of neutral acceptance is
related to self-actualization. Given the brevity of life, some people
may want to make to good use of their time and accomplish something
worthwhile and significant. Both Kaufmann (1976) and Goodman (1981)
have also proposed the idea of conquering the fear of death through
self-actualization; being able to accomplish meaningful life goals
leads to death acceptance. This idea has been eloquently expressed
by Goodman (1981):
"I don’t think people are afraid of death.
What they are afraid of is the incompleteness of their life,"
wrote Ted Rosenthal (1973), who at the age of thirty was told
that he had acute leukemia and was going to die. This is one of
the most positive statements made on the most fundamentally aversive
human condition. It contains an implicit solution to the existential
fear of death: completion of one’s life, attainment of self-fulfillment.
Goodman (1981) provides numerous illustrations
of the above thesis based on his conversations with eminent artists
and scientists. For example, in response to Goodman’s question:
"Would you banish death if you could?" Dr. John Wheeler, a renowned
physicist, gave the following answer:
We have no stronger way to mark our commitment
to a great cause than to die for it. So long as there is any such
thing as death, human beings can be great. Nobody can take away
one’s possibility to die for a cause. So long as that measure
of ultimate commitment is attainable, the world will be a live
place to live in. Were death to be abolished, all that we call
precious in the world would die (p. 81)
Dr. Wheeler has raised an interesting point—the
nobleness of human beings lies in their ability to find a cause
that is worth dying for. This ultimate commitment constitutes the
highest criterion of a meaningful existence. Death becomes a friend
rather than an enemy when it brings a natural conclusion to a completed
life task. Goodman (1981) explains the psychological process that
transforms fear of death into death acceptance:
To assert in the face of death, "I have fulfilled
myself, I can die," certainly takes the sting out of that fateful
final hour. But even more important, to know that one is doing
all that one is equipped to do, to experience life as meaningful
while one is still in the midst of it, may well take the sting
of death and liberate us from the fear that inhibits most people
to strive toward self-actualization in the first place. . . .
There may be an optimal way in the lifelong process of approaching
death: a way that would allow us to experience the human condition
as meaningful rather than absurd; life as fulfilling and terminable
rather than frustrating and incomplete; death as an ultimate goal,
worth striving for, rather than lifelong threat to dash our hopes.
The main weakness with Goodman’s thesis is that
creative energy does not end with the completion of one task. In
fact, creative people are constantly searching for new challenges,
but life is too short to complete all the exciting projects available.
I can’t imagine that truly creative people would say: "I have completed
my life task. Therefore, I’ll spend the rest of my life on a rocking
chair waiting to die." It is more likely that as long as health
permits, creative people will continue to pursue projects. When
it is time for them to depart, they have the satisfaction that they
have done all they can given the years they have, even though much
remains to be done.
Furthermore, I do not agree with Goodman that
self-actualization represents an optimal way to approach death.
Some have to die prematurely, not able to complete their life tasks,
let alone fulfilling all of their potential. There is also little
hope beyond the grave if the significance of one’s existence rests
on one’s performance.
Approach acceptance seems to be the most satisfying
way to approach death, because it not only incorporates the completion
of one’s mission in life, but also extends to a rewarding afterlife.
The sting of death is removed by faith in resurrection and eternal
life. After presenting evidence on the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
Apostle Paul declares:
When the perishable has been clothed with
the imperishable, and the moral with immortality, then the saying
that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in
victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your
sting?" (Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:55)
Many of our successful agers have expressed
such faith. They looked forward to returning to their Heavenly Home,
not on the merit of their own accomplishment, but on the basis of
their faith in Christ. This type of approach acceptance is not only
more attainable, but also more satisfying that self-actualization,
provided that one believes in the after-life.
In her memoir of living and dying, Elisabeth
Kübler-Ross (1997) epitomizes the triumphant spirit of a religiously
based death acceptance:
When we have passed the tests we were sent
to Earth to learn, we are allowed to graduate. We are allowed
to shed our body, which imprisons our soul the way a cocoon encloses
the future butterfly, and when the time is right we can let go
of it. The we will be free of pain, free of fears and free of
worries . . . free as a beautiful butterfly returning home to
God . . . which is a place where we are never alone, where we
continue to grow and to sing and to dance, where we are with those
we loved, and where we are surrounded with more love than we can
ever imagine (p. 284).
We have found that both neutral acceptance and
approach acceptance are significantly correlated with positive meanings
of life. However, approach acceptance was also positively correlated
with positive meanings of death, providing evidence that approach
acceptance is an optimal way to approach death.
Implications for Successful Aging
We have seen that those who endorse
both neutral and approach acceptance are likely to have a sense
of mission and derive meaning from pursuing their life tasks. Their
commitment to meaningful living not only banishes the fear of death
but also make life worth living whatever their circumstances. That
is why Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1997) is able to declare: "Dying is
nothing to fear. It is the most wonderful experience of your life.
It all depends on how you have lived." (p.286)
According to Frankl (1963, 1971),
the prospect of death motivates individuals to assume responsibility
and respond to the opportunities life has to offer. It also provides
the challenges to transform the reality of death into new possibilities
for meaning. Kovacs (1982) offer this useful insight on Frankl:
An apparent obstacle or a limitation in life
may become a source for new personal meaning and self-realization.
Thus, for Frankl, death is not the end but rather the beginning
of the birth of meaning in human living. (p. 202)
In his edited book The Courage to Grow Old,
Berman (1989) provides numerous examples of individuals who have
faced old age and death with courage because of their abiding sense
of meaning and unfailing faith. Leland Stowe (1989), one of the
contributors in Berman’s volume, summarizes it well:
If it doesn’t take courage to grow old, what
does it take? Faith in living, I believe, faith that its compensations
will multiply with time. . . . It all adds up to this equation:
Attitudes + Habits = Motivations; Motivations + Goals + Dreams
= Character – all cindered into solid bricks for the passageway
into growing old. (p. 303)
Indeed, attitude matters a great deal. It is
attitude more than action that ultimately determines whether a person
ages well and dies well. Many of the participants in the Ontario
Project on Successful Aging have demonstrated this important truth
over and over again. I believe that our existential and spiritual
emphasis will bring hope to many seniors who are suffering from
chronic illness or physical disability.
Fortunately, it is within almost everyone’s
reach to discover meaning and spirituality. Regardless of the extent
of their physical limitations, people can always choose positive
attitudes towards life. All that is required is a grateful heart,
an open mind and a searching soul. We have initiated the International
Network on Personal Meaning (http://www.meaning.twu.ca) to facilitate
people’s existential and spiritual quests. Our Meaning of Life Forum
is particularly relevant to those interested in meaning-oriented
What happens when seniors are no longer able
to do productive work? What happens when their health declines to
the point that they require institutional care? Can they still achieve
successful aging? The answer to these questions is a resounding
"Yes." Elsewhere, I have discussed in details how to promote meaning
and spirituality in successful aging (Wong, 1989, 1998). I believe
that society and individuals can work together to making aging and
death more meaningful.
To follow up on the incident reported at the
beginning of this chapter, I was able to engage in a discussion
with this group of disgruntled seniors. Almost instantly, they caught
on to my message and agreed wholeheartedly that the medical and
gerontological establishment should pay more attention to the existential
and spiritual needs of seniors.
Psychologists and researchers all need to pay
more attention to existential and spiritual issues. Neugarten (1997)
had this recommendation:
Psychologists will probably gain enormously
by focusing more attention upon the issues that are of major concern
to the individual by focusing more attention upon issues that
are of major concern to the individual—what the person selects
as important in his past and his present, what he hopes to do
in the future, what he predict will occur, what strategies he
selects, and what meanings he attaches to time, life, and death.
With respect to spiritual care, Cluff (1984)
emphasized that "Spirituality must be accepted as a dimension of
what it means to be human—to live and die, to suffer and rejoice,
to succeed and to fail, to hope and despair" (p. 609). He suggested
that when one is facing death,
. . . what is important is not whether the
individual finds peace in God or attains a satisfactory answer
to the questions of life’s meaning, although this may be desirable.
What is important is whether the individual continues to question
and seek out God, meaning, purpose, and value. (p. 610)
Thus, the quest for meaning and spirituality
is an on going process, making the journey of life rewarding until
the very end.
I am pleased that things are moving in the right
direction. Both researchers and health care professionals are beginning
to recognize the important role of meaning and spirituality (Wong
& Fry, 1998). I hope this chapter will encourage more people to
take seriously the existential approach to successful aging and
Points to Remember
Rowe and Kane’s (1995) model of
successful aging focuses on physical health, psychological functioning
and active lifestyle. Some seniors, especially those with physical
disability, feel that this model devalues them and treats them as
Wong’s (1989, 1998) model of successful
aging emphasizes the existential and spiritual needs of seniors.
He proposes that successful aging is 80% attitude and 20% everything
else; therefore, it is attainable even by those who are frail and
chronically ill. Results from the Ontario Project on Successful
Aging support Wong’s existential model.
According to Wong’s existential-spiritual
model of aging, positive meanings of life and death provide the
necessary motivation for pursuing a healthy life style as well as
worthy life goals. Furthermore, the model allows for a high level
of life satisfaction, even when physical health is failing.
Death anxiety and death avoidance
can be replaced by neutral acceptance and approach acceptance. Individuals
demonstrate the death attitude of neutral acceptance when they come
to grips with the reality of their personal mortality and try to
make the most of their lives. Individuals exhibit the death attitude
of approach acceptance when they look forward to a rewarding afterlife
after completing their mission in life.
Approach acceptance promises to
be the optimal approach to living well and dying well. Therefore,
gerontological care and death education should take into account
the spiritual and existential needs of seniors.
* The Ontario Project on Successful
Aging was conducted in corporation with Gary Reker and supported
by a Strategic Research Grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council.
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