What I Learned (Just in Time)
George Vaillant M.D.
by Kathy Coogan
As a Baby Boomer who tints her creeping gray, eats six prunes a day and spends way too much time in the lotions and potions aisle of the drug store, I am introspective about aging well - getting older while attempting to maintain some semblance of youth.
I have been blessed with pretty good health (so far-so good) and am a realist with an optimistic streak. My doctor, knowing I wanted to be proactive about “aging gracefully” (as my 90 year old mother calls it) “prescribed” the following book.
Aging Well, by George Vaillant, M.D. uses anecdotes and scientific methods to describe some surprising conclusions about the probability of “successful aging.” For his data, Dr. Vaillant worked with and later combined three studies which began in the 1930s to evaluate “healthy, normal” men from Harvard; so-called average “Inner City” men and “High I.Q. Women.”
The Study of Adult Development followed these 824 men and women for over five decades. It is interesting to note the loyalty of the study participants, many who continued until death or until physically unable to do so. Those who conducted the study were more apt to come and go because of life/career changes.
Dr. Vaillant, then age thirty-three, joined the Harvard cohort study in its thirtieth year as a research professor, ultimately realizing that he would need the wisdom of all three cohorts as a Study on Aging, which he led. He jokes that, “now, I, too get a Social Security check.”
From the beginning when the participants were in their late teens and early twenties, the studies required them to provide family history, undergo health exams, answer biennial written questionnaires and to be available for periodic face-to-face interviews.
The purpose of the prospective studies was to evaluate in the present the attitude/beliefs/ health/life-quality that each individual was currently experiencing as the years went by. This prospective study did not require reconstruction of lives well- or poorly-lived since memory was not relied upon. The data were gathered in real time about conditions now.
Degrees of quality of aging were constructed. These ranged from Happy/Well to Sad/Sick. Objective ratings were determined and anecdotes told by the subjects were gathered and assessed. Statistics, charts and graphs were compiled. The conclusions reached were unexpected.
Dr. Vaillant found that health and wealth, (“no health worries, no money worries,”) were not requirements for aging well. rather the study revealed more ephemeral causes.
Why was it that some people who were old and ill did not feel “sick?” How did some people overcome extreme “lack of nurturing” in childhood while others were still affected by it as seniors? Why did some “highly intelligent, successful” people feel disappointed while “less intelligent, less successful” participants felt fulfilled?
Dr. Vaillant and his team determined that it was “social aptitude” (sometimes called “emotional intelligence”) that leads to successful aging. Social class and intelligence were also not markers for aging well. There were specific esoteric phases or stages that were consistent with successful aging and which Dr. Vaillant translates for the reader.
Long marriages or lifetime friendships seemed to be “built into the wiring” of the Happy/Well elderly. The ability to work well with others while maintaining and expanding a personal identity was another social mastery that signals a path to healthy aging.
Interestingly, “passing it on,” (becoming a “caregiver”) with the willingness and ability to guide the next generation, as you yourself begin to “phase out” is another trait of the Happy/Well. Being a “caretaker” of tradition, the role of a good grandparent, is another trait. Finally, the acceptance of one’s life, the wisdom to accept what was and is, enables successful aging.
It is important to realize that the organizers of this Study did not pre-determine these qualities and were often surprised by the results. There was no forcing of square pegs into round holes. The how and why of the Study results sprung from the lives of the participants not some prior assumption of the Study managers. The traits were recognized to exist in the participants who were among the Happy/Well group and to be absent in the Sad/Sick.
But if these qualities are assets to healthy aging, how do we, as we age and retire from so-called productive lives, achieve them if we haven’t already? The Study suggests that four activities enable this to happen.
1. Maintaining old friendships and welcoming new ones
2. Rediscovering play and fun
3. Being creative
4. Continuing learning
Again, these activities were not imagined by the social scientists conducting the study. They were the common behaviors of those participants who were living out their lives with acceptance and joy. None seem impossible to this Baby Boomer.
As I write this, I optimistically check off items #3 and #4 above, feeling creative and newly educated about the aging process. Items #1 and #2 are ticked off as I think about a very poor golf round played this week, followed by lunch and laughing till I cried with wonderful women friends, after which I returned home to my husband of forty years.
Reading Aging Well was one prescription that was not too hard a pill to swallow. The conclusions of the Study give the reader some power over the inevitable. If we are lucky we will grow old. If we pay attention to the wisdom of the Happy/Well we might enjoy it.
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