How to Grow Old ? Part 1.

This is a subject close to my heart and, as the years pass, is increasingly relevant. I’ve been researching the advice and ‘wisdom’ that’s around and it is either blindingly obvious or downright depressing.

Popular culture tends to emphasise the worst case scenario for the older population, that is, ill health and earlier than expected death. When I searched for content relevant to the topic of old age on my own professional society’s web site I was hoping there might be some kind of positive psychology angle but all the numerous articles and professional events focused entirely upon old age as a pathology, for example, dementia, cognitive deterioration, social isolation and physical debilitation of one kind or another. I have to admit I was so disheartened that I didn’t spend more than a couple of hours on the exercise. On reflection I realise my hope for some positivity about ageing was naive, after all, I’ve become inured to the fact that every month as I look through the glossy pages of the BPS Psychologist magazine nearly every image depicts someone at least half my age. This is ironic and unrepresentative given the demographic profile of a large proportion of the membership, particularly those who practice as BPS chartered and HCPC registered professional psychologists.

I recently read ‘The Longevity Project’, by American academics Dr. Howard Friedman and Dr Leslie Martin, who have built upon Dr Terman’s 1920’s lifespan study exploring the links between personality and longevity over time. Through a series of tests and measures building upon Terman’s original work and emphasising modern-day statistical validity and scientific methodology, they claim that the personality characteristic most likely to ensure a long life, is conscientiousness, i.e. deliberate, values-based and consistent effort and follow-through. Friedman and Martin offer much more than a nod to the complex interplay of nature and nurture when they describe how health behaviours, lifestyle, physical and neurological profiles and living context interact over time to create good health and long life and vice versa. They also acknowledge the fact that individuals’ levels of conscientiousness can change throughout their lives but in general, things like positive and enduring relationships, and supportive workplaces are a feature of the lives of people high in conscientiousness who are able to create ‘healthy long-life pathways” for themselves.

I know, from my own doctoral research into teachers’ workplace interactions and relationships, that no easy solutions and pat answers are likely to be discovered when research into complex human beings is undertaken. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to achieve a better understanding so that we can try to find better ways of living and also address the frequently negatively skewed expectations and attributions at play. I’m going to keep a look out for some good news about ageing and examples of people and groups who’ve found ways and means to contradict the stereotypes that are largely available at present. In my next post I will write about a whole town in Japan that has done just this.

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