Successful Aging

Donald R. Nicholas, Ph.D., ABPP

by Donald R. Nicholas, PhD, ABPP

I am pleased to be asked to contribute to this ongoing blog discussion about successful aging, particularly since this opportunity came with a symposium presentation with two successful graduates of our PhD program in Counseling Psychology at Ball State University and leaders of the Older Adult SIG—Drs. Renee’ Zucchero and Michiko Iwasaki.  The three of us presented our thoughts on successful aging on March 31, 2017 at the 2017 Great Lakes Regional Counseling Psychology Conference and this blog is an extension of our symposium.  This was a great time to see Renee’ and Michiko, back on Ball State’s campus.
I was asked to address an identified dilemma in the literature that might best be explained via the question, “why, when asked to define successful aging, do researchers and older adults generally give different definitions”? In other words, is successful aging best defined as it has been defined by researchers via objective measures with good psychometric properties, or is it better defined by the subjective, phenomenological experiences of older adults living successful lives during the latter years of life?  I will offer both my professional and personal reflections on this question.

Professional Perspective
I have seen this same issue addressed with many other psychological constructs.  Which is most valuable, the objective definition of the researcher that comes from well-developed, psychometrically-sound, valid and reliable questionnaires, or the subjective, phenomenological, perspective of the aging older adult?  The objective scientist’s approach is most likely to come from self-report questionnaires administered to a large-number of older adults in the form of quantitative research where group means and standard deviations will be presented. The subjective, phenomenological approach is more likely to come from qualitative research where smaller numbers of older adult will provide more detailed, rich, deeper dives into their personal experiences of successful aging.  This results in another good example of the often-explained differences between quantitative and qualitative research where the former generates “small amounts of information from large numbers of people” and the latter generates “large amounts of information from smaller numbers of people.”  Both are valuable and hopefully inform one another. All of this is a current day example of an age-old issue in psychological research between the nomothetic and the idiographic.  Good to know that some basic questions remain, even though the topic/content may differ!  I think that these two perspectives are not likely to ever converge around a similar definition.  Rather, I think they are valued because they are providing different perspectives or lenses from which to address an important question, “what is successful aging?”
With that brief opinion from my professional perspective let me move on to a more personal perspective and provide my own subjective, phenomenological view of successful aging.

Personal Perspective
First, since there is no agreed upon operational definition of successful aging, I can’t claim to be doing so, but I was flattered to be asked, under the assumption of those asking that I might have something valuable to offer.  So, for now let’s pretend I am aging successfully.  At 65, I am considered to be “young-old.”  I continue to work full-time in my academic job at Ball State and I continue to provide clinical services in my specialty of psycho-oncology, so I am writing from the perspective of a 65-year-old, White, married, male, father of three adult children and one grandson, who tries to be aware of his privileged status in our culture.  I work at least five days per week, but find myself thinking frequently about the upcoming transition toward retirement.
At present, I spend time: (a) looking back upon my professional career and evaluating its impact, while also (b) looking forward to a time when my days will not be structured around it.  When I look back, I sometimes am reminded of a time in my career (1987 through 1993) when I was affiliated with the Fisher Institute for Wellness here on campus.  Three of us were tasked with starting the Institute and I, as the coordinator of research, took on the primary task of trying to define the construct of “wellness”.  We reviewed the literature and found there was little agreement on a formal definition, but lots of models.  Within these models, we saw differing numbers of components, but most agreed that wellness consisted of a variety of components or life dimensions.  Probably, the most popular at the time was from the National Wellness Institute and its proposed six dimensions of wellness—emotional, occupational, physical, spiritual, intellectual, and social.  I think such a model is valuable because it provides a guide for considering which life dimensions, at which points in life, seem most important. Additionally, one can first evaluate where one is on one or more dimensions and then how to structure one’s lifestyle and personal goals toward some form of emphasis and growth in one or more dimensions.  I think an adult lifespan developmental order could be proposed to these that would, of course, differ by person but many could see a sequential order that might include a focus on social/physical/emotional in early adulthood, soon followed by a necessary focus on intellectual/occupational as one entered the permanent work force, and maybe a bit later comes a focus on spiritual.  Certainly, there will be many variations on this order and the value may be in considering the meaning and purpose in why one or more dimensions seems most salient at a point in time.

My Personal Life Dimensions
I have been fortunate to have good physical health and to be capable of continuing to do most physical activities that I want (sans long distance running which ended in my late 40s after a couple of arthroscopic knee surgeries). I was athletic in my youth and so my physical life dimension has always been something I am proud of and probably have taken too much for granted.  Thus, although so far so good, I realize it’s not a given and I will likely have to face some physical limitations in the future, but for now I am good!  For instance, just recently my son and I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail together where we covered 22 miles in three days. This proved to be a very meaningful time together as he has been living in Brazil, with plans to return soon.  We “seized the days” while we could!  Based upon a current strong foundation of good physical health, I consider the other dimensions.

I was fortunate to have good parents and to have been raised in an emotionally healthy strong, Irish Catholic family.  As the fifth child of six, I had lots of older siblings from which to watch emotional development and regulation and the smarts to watch closely who to emulate.  This tendency to closely observe, watch, sit back, and consider consequences was the foundation of my interest in and formative in my development of a temperament to become a psychologist.  It has served me well, and I hope I regularly live with awareness and gratitude for this.  It also left me with a curiosity about how emotions work and as I have grown, via the study of psychology, I have come to learn how to recognize/identify, label, and accurately express my own emotions.  As an older adult male, I feel free to express most any emotions, but am more inclined, the older I get, to focus on affirmation, gratitude, and acceptance.  As my life extends it has also expanded to include a much broader awareness of goodness in others, similarities despite differences, and compassion for others.  I worry much less about how others view me, and this is freeing.
My wife and I have been married for 43 years, so my social life dimension has, for a long time, been centered around our relationship, while being enriched by friends, colleagues and extended family.  In earlier years while raising children, our social life was intertwined with their activities—dance, sports, school, church—that kept us very busy.  I now look back on those times and see the richness, the precious moments I cherish.  As I age, I often think now about how I will probably need to be more intentional and proactive in forming new relationships in the future.  This will be challenging for me, but doable.  This social life dimension is likely to become of increasing importance in retirement, with more time I hope to be more regularly involved with friends and family

As an academic, these two dimensions co-occur.  My occupation has been an incredibly important and enriching part of my life. I will be forever grateful to have worked at one institution, with wonderful colleagues, for many years, but my occupation is winding down.  I think about and feel the winding down almost daily.  Some days I feel sad; other days I feel glad; and other days, I feel very impatient—I can’t wait!  Maybe I am wrong to be in a hurry, but just in recent months, I think I have come to the realization that I will transition into retirement just fine!  When I think about the future years, I mostly think about what I want to do!  Rarely do I think about what I will miss, although I am sure I will miss a lot—particularly a lot of people I have grown to be close to, to love, to care about.  I know I will miss them, but I also look forward to having more leisure time—time devoted to what, for me, at this point in my life is my most salient life dimension—the Spiritual.

I am both spiritual and religious.  I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, in the context of a family for whom, Catholicism was so woven into our life, most memories involve some connection to the church—Baptism, First Communion, Altar Boy, Confirmation, and so on.  I completed 12 years of school in Catholic schools and consider myself today heavily influenced by my Roman Catholic past.  However, my wife and I raised our children in a United Methodist tradition and we continue to be very active in our local United Methodist church.  Throughout these external signs of my Christian faith, my internal focus has been on contemplative prayer.  In my mid 40’s, during a time I was reflecting on these wellness dimensions, I made a conscious decision that my spiritual life was lacking and began to intentionally focus on its growth.  This came mostly in the form of a practice of contemplative prayer via the regular practice of Centering Prayer.  I have continued to do so for the past 25 years and as I look to my future, I anticipate devoting more time toward this spiritual growth which comes with increased awareness, consciousness and most interestingly for me, a renewed appreciation and understanding of an orthodox view of Christianity.  As I have fantasized about what retirement may be, I hope I can find time to regularly pray, live in the mystery of my faith, while being inspired to do good for others.  In what form that takes, I really don’t know right now, but I have faith that I will know when I need to.

In re-reading the above, I am not sure I focused on “successful aging”, but I do feel like I have provided an honest, personal perspective on aging, from the perspective of one who is looking closely a retirement within the next 2-3 years.  With that in mind, I hope that my thoughts have been interesting, coherent, and may provide some perspective on successful aging, at a developmental time when my career is winding down, and retirement is looming in the near future.

About the Author

Donald R. Nicholas, Ph.D., ABPP, is Professor of Counseling Psychology at Ball State where he serves as the director of the APA-Approved doctoral program. He is Board Certified (ABPP) in clinical health Psychology and is a Fellow of the APA’s Society of Counseling Psychology and the Academy of Clinical Health Psychology. His specialty and primary clinical work has been psycho-oncology.  Since 1994 he has provided, and supervised, psychological services to cancer patients and their families.  This work has been provided to predominantly older adults facing serious health problems, facing multiple losses and often struggling with issues of meaning and purpose.


1 thought on “Successful Aging

  1. Maggie S

    Thanks, Dr. Nicholas, for the candid look at “successful aging” and the difficulty of nailing down exactly what that entails. I like the individualized approach, making it about each person’s view in different domains.


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