Positive ageing is a way of living rather than a state of being.
Positive ageing is an approach which recognises how negative mental states (beliefs, thoughts, ideas, attitudes) can have a detrimental impact on physical and emotional wellbeing as we age. It proposes three principal strategies to prevent negative outcomes:-
- developing a more balanced understanding of the reality of ageing
- applying techniques drawn from humanistic psychology to gain a degree of control over negative mental states
- building emotional wellbeing and resilience in order to be better able to negotiate the significant challenges in later life
Positive ageing is more than a philosophy – it is a practical way of improving the chances of having better life as we age. It focuses on the emotional and psychological aspects of ageing. It understands that the ‘mind’ can have a significant impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing.
The mechanism that links mental states to physical and emotional wellbeing is understood to be as follows. Thoughts (by which we mean ideas, beliefs, attitudes) give rise to emotions (like fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness and sadness) which in turn can produce physiological reactions in the body. Where thoughts are persistently negative there is a significant risk that physical or mental health problems can arise.
This mechanism is common throughout all life stages, however there are particular characteristics in later life that make this process particularly risky if negativity is left unchallenged:-
- Ageism: There are pervasive public narratives which commonly portray the ageing process and older people in negative terms. Common phrases about later life such as it ‘being down hill all the way’, and of older people being ‘a burden’ are routinely promulgated in the media. What most people fail to realize is that these are absorbed subconsciously and can produce significantly negative internal beliefs about ageing in general and the individual’s own old age in particular.
- Fear and Loss: Despite its many benefits and joys, later life can be characterised as a time when people experience different forms of loss – loss of friends and family through death, and loss of physical or mental capacity through illness or frailty. The experience of such loss can be difficult to cope with and the fear of such eventualities can be debilitating.
- Transitions: Major life events such as bereavement, illness, becoming a carer, loss of employment (through redundancy or retirement) become much more likely as we age and they tend to trigger emotional processes which can lead to profound changes in how people feel about themselves – their role in society, their sense of purpose and their feelings about other people. People can go through a number of such transitions in later life and this can change them quite fundamentally.
These characteristics are particular to later life and can frequently produce very negative mental states such as depression and anxiety. They can also produce a chronic sense of apathy or fatalism leading to a lack of motivation to make the most out of later years.
A positive ageing approach advocates:-
- a realistic understanding of ageing which fully recognises its positive aspects as well as the more challenging ones.
- an understanding that many major life events will happen in later life. We can’t control or prevent them – but we do have some control over how we respond to them
- the realisation that how we think and feel about ageing can have a significant impact on our health and well being in old age. Negative ideas can act as a ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ and greatly increase the likelihood of ill health and depression.
- developing a more positive outlook – a ‘glass half full’ perspective – can consciously use the ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ mechanism in a positive way to produce a better quality of later life
- using techniques from humanistic psychology which can be learned and applied as preventative measures during the ageing process to produce much better outcomes