What is the key to finding meaning, contentment and acceptance in later life, even when faced with physical and cognitive decline? That is the question that has plagued researchers throughout time.
Scholars have spent countless hours identifying the characteristics of people who report satisfaction late in life. In an attempt to expand on this study, Monika Ardelt, an associate sociology professor at the University of Florida, explored the available research on healthy aging. According to studies, satisfaction late in life consists of three key elements: maintaining mental and physical health, having positive relationships with others and volunteering.
Yet, preserving these key elements is not always possible when the body starts to decline, social roles are diminished and major personal losses are experienced. What happens then? Can these people not age successfully? Should they just give up? These were the questions Professor Ardelt found herself asking. After further investigation, Professor Ardelt ultimately identified the key to aging successfully.
“Wisdom is the ace in the hole that can help even severely impaired people find meaning, contentment and acceptance in later life,” she said.
Using the work of geriatric neuropsychologist Vivian Clayton as the foundation for her research, Professor Ardelt created a wisdom scale that consisted of 39 questions designed to measure three dimensions of wisdom. Subjects participating in the study were not told that their answers were being measured for wisdom. When reviewing the answers to questions like “a problem has little attraction for me if I don’t think it has a solution,” and “I can be comfortable with all kinds of people,” Professor Ardelt found that participants who displayed evidence of high wisdom were more likely to possess better coping skills and to be more proactive when dealing with hardships.
On the other hand, Professor Ardelt found that an impediment to high wisdom is believing that you cannot stand who you have become because it differs from who you used to be in appearance and ability. Psychotherapist Isabella S. Bick says she has aging clients who are distressed by a perceived worsening of their appearance, their sexual performance, their memory and their physical abilities. But for an individual to grow as they age, they must accept and embrace changes.
“Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity,” Professor Ardelt said.
Professor Ardelt’s research found that when aging adults in nursing homes or with terminal illnesses score high on her wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of wellbeing. In order to ward off the despair that illness and gradual physical and cognitive decline can bring, aging adults must possess a conviction in their own completeness. They must accept the difficulties of daily living with humor and humility. These dimensions of wisdom are the keys to happy and healthy aging.
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