Star Trek fans (especially those of the original TV series that began in 1966) can picture it clearly; the stony-faced, somber man with the oddly pointed ears greeting a fellow crew member with a distinct hand gesture and the phrase, “Live long and prosper.” It seems like a nice sentiment, but, for those of us living in this galaxy, it might be a little difficult to explain exactly what it means.
The “live long” portion of this salutation is hard to quantify. Gerontologists, those people who make a study of the human aging process, are currently in the midst of reconsidering the cut-off point for their definition of the oldest-old in our society. Many financial planners now routinely use a life expectancy of 90 or even 95 when making projections about how long their client’s resources will last. As the Baby Boomers begin their march toward their final ends, the generation that never ages (at least in public) will continue to make us re-think what we consider to be a long life.
But let’s look at the vaguer portion of the phrase, that part about prospering. What does it mean to be prosperous in old age? This is another concept that gerontologists are struggling to define precisely. Traditionally, the concept of prosperity revolved around material goods and the acquisition of “things”. People used the word prosperous in conjunction with words like “banker” or “business owner”.
When I think about an older person being prosperous, I might be considering how rich they are, but I might also imagine a person who has maintained their general good health and their joie de vivre. Older folks who have a sense of purpose and belonging and who can still enjoy most parts of their daily existence are a big step ahead of their counterparts who have succumbed to the stress and dysfunction involved in managing life-threatening health problems or mental incapacitation.
It’s popular now to talk about “aging well”. You can find countless books and articles about the subject because, let’s face it, we Boomers are into self-help in a big way. Lots of research is currently being undertaken around this issue. The latest edition of Aging Today, the bi-monthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging, has devoted the majority of its sixteen pages to various articles about the topic. Their conclusion? The process of aging well is both basic and complex.
The basic tenents of living successfully as an elder revolve around things that our mothers have been telling us since childhood: don’t use tobacco or drink/drug excessively, stay trim and fit, get out and walk or do some sort of physical exercise daily, be nice to others in your community and be open to the possibilities around you. If you can still do all or most of these things as a nonagenarian (if you don’t know what that word means, do as my mother always said and look it up), you would be likely to say that you were living well and happily if a researcher were to ask.
But what about the elders we all know who are not in such good health, either physically and/or mentally? This is where the definition becomes more complex and individualized. If the same researcher asked a 93-year-old with arthritis, macular degeneration, nerve damage, a bum knee and other ailments if he was living well, what would his response be? How about a 107-year-old who has a history of small strokes and is in mid-stage dementia, who believes that her mother is living down the hall at the nursing home? These two folks might be somewhat discouraged about their lot in later life, right?
Amazingly, if you asked the two if they were happy – (ASA Aging Today author Barbara Meltzer asked the first gentleman, writer Roger Angell; I asked the second lady, my own aunt Carolyn) – you would get a resounding “yes and the world is beautiful” response from them both. The role of mental attitude plays a huge role in how elders express satisfaction with their lots in life.
So if you’re currently a pretty optimistic person, guard that attitude as a precious gift to take with you into your later years. If you tend to be more on the dour side, try to cultivate joy, humor and laughter now so that it becomes a habit as you age. In addition to your mental attitude, having some flavor of faith or spiritual belief and being part of a loving family or social group all come into play in the happy aging scenario.
I bet Mr. Spock, with that well-developed Vulcan brain of his, could have told us that this was the case, if we’d asked for his opinion on the whole topic. It’s only logical!
Blog By Holly Deni