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The Art of Aging Gracefully

Experts say the keys to successful aging include accepting changes and finding meaningful activities.

The Old Are Survivors

It's true that aging brings hardships, but remember that the old are survivors -- a select group.

Wisdom, resilience and a mature perspective are often cited as the hard-won prizes of aging. But growing old itself is an accomplishment.

"But if you get to be older, you have survived a lot of the threats to your physical and psychological integrity that have affected other people who are no longer around," psychologist Whitbourne says.

Through good luck or good genes or both, the old have dodged fatal accidents, premature disease, and other things that kill the young. "You are stronger, and you get to live longer," she says. "Most people think that's a benefit."

A dose of healthy denial can improve outlook in one's later years, she adds. "The people who do the best with aging aren't thinking that much about getting older. They're not really focusing on what's not working anymore. If you sit around mulling over the meaning of existence and how time is running out, you're building in a scenario where you're not going to age as successfully."

Accepting Changes

Accept the inevitable changes of aging, rather than seeing them as aberrant crises. 

During the course of his career, Illinois psychologist Mark Frazier, PsyD, has worked with thousands of older people "ages 65 to 105," he says.

Again and again, he's seen an important key to psychological health: accepting that your life won't stay the same. Aging changes everyone.

"If you live until you're 95 years old, you're probably not going to be living alone in a beautiful apartment and driving your car to the grocery store and picking up your dry cleaning and walking a mile to the park. But if you know that ahead of time, it's much easier to manage it," he says.   

"To age gracefully, one needs to anticipate the changes that are inevitable," Frazier says. "People who think rigidly do not do that. As they encounter the natural changes and health status that are part of aging, these things are experienced as negative and adding a lot of stress and strain to their life. Rigid thinkers tend to get overwhelmed. They can't manage it, and they get depressed."

"Other people anticipate what's going to happen," he says. "It's more of a 'Yes, I knew this was coming and I know that I'll negotiate my way through it.'"

Avoiding Stereotypes

Get over your own stereotypes about growing older.

Sue Ellen Cooper, 62, understands Ephron's dirge about "compensatory dressing" and obligatory hair dye. "It's not disgraceful to mourn the loss of your beauty," Cooper says.

"But it's going. So you may as well do what you can and then forget it because there's so much more to life than how you look and what other people think of you."

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