Impediments to Positive Aging

Societal Impediments

American society is undergoing profound transition, from a youth-oriented society to an aging society, and the pathways towards productive, positive aging are still unclear.

Societal norms with respect to older adults are slow to change, despite scientific evidence that aging does not have to represent continuous mental and physical decline and despite the numbers of older adults who are rejecting prior patterns of work, retirement and social isolation.

Ashton Applewhite on her own pre-conceived notions about aging and the truths she has learned about it:

Ashton Applewhite started blogging on the topic of agism (or “ageism”) in 2007 at This Chair Rocks; she started Yo, Is this Ageist, in 2012. During that time she has become a Knight Fellow, a New York Times Fellow, and a Columbia Journalism School Age Boom Fellow.


The impediments to change are many, starting with Agism, which is deeply ingrained in American society. We are surrounded by negative stereotypes of older adults and aging, our institutions and businesses are generally organized to privilege younger people, and our reliance on new technologies and new systems puts older adults at a disadvantage in most work settings. Agism is so deeply embedded that many older adults themselves reject the word “seniors” and avoid institutional settings (like senior centers) or programs where older adults are in the majority.

Most businesses and institutions do not prioritize life experiences and skills honed over many years in their hiring practices. Most community organizations are not geared to integrate individuals of multiple generations as staff members and tend to relegate older adult volunteers to mundane tasks that may not reflect their talents and backgrounds. Housing patterns tend to isolate older adults so that they are less visible beyond their immediate neighborhoods. There are few organizations and institutions, that focus on the potential contributions of older adults.

Few Enrichment Opportunities

Beyond these obvious barriers to full older adult participation in American life, older adults face other impediments to developing their human potential in their later years. Access to physical fitness programs and stimulating mental activities may be limited by income, awareness or transportation. Community based educational programs geared to older adults are all too often simplistic and undemanding, and do not reflect the new research on older adult capacities for structured learning. Opportunities for the development of new artistic skills are still limited, particularly those that involve professional arts education and serious self-expression.

Few Blueprints Exist

Above all, there are few blueprints or clear expectations for how older adults can take advantage of their “bonus years,” i.e., the new decades of relatively good health that are now part of our extended life spans. Traditional retirement is not an option or a goal for many Boomers and other active older adults, and approaches for ways to optimize these years are still unclear.

“Will You Be Fit or Frail? A Resource or a Liability?”

Here is another voice on the topic: Walter M. Bortz II, M.D., a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, gave a lecture “The Plastisity of Human Aging” in Schroedinger Lecture Theatre at Trinity College Dublin.

Further Reading:

Brim, O. G., Ryff, C. D., & Kessler, R. C. (2004). How healthy are we?: a national study of well-being at midlife. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Center on Age and Community. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2013, from
Cohen, G. D. (2005). The mature mind: the positive power of the aging brain. New York: Basic Books.
Cole, T. R., Van Tassel, D. D., & Kastenbaum, R. (1992). Handbook of the humanities and aging. New York: Springer.
For Healthy Aging, a Late Act in the Footlights. (n.d.). Opinionator. Retrieved from
Henderson, J. N. (1984). Aging and the Elderly: Humanistic Perspectives in Gerontology.  Stuart F. Spicker,  Kathleen M. Woodward,  David D. van Tassel. Medical Anthropology Newsletter Medical Anthropology Newsletter, 15(4), 111–111.
Hope K. Levy. (n.d.). There’s Always Hope: Positive Aging through Lifelong Learning. Retrieved May 11, 2013, from
Lessons from the long-lived. (n.d.). Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from
Moody, H. R. (n.d.). Conscious Aging: A New Level of Growth in Later Life. Harry R. Moody. Retrieved May 11, 2013, from
Prime Time Radio: Composing a Further Life, Personal Growth, Life Stor… – AARP. (2010, October 12). Retrieved from
This Chair Rocks — Ashton Applewhite. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2013, from
Tornstam, L. (2005). Gerotranscendence: a developmental theory of positive aging. New York: Springer Pub. Co.
Universitetet i Linköping. Electronic Press. (2006). International journal of ageing and later life IJAL. [Linköping, Sweden]: Linköping University Electronic Press. Retrieved from
Walter Bortz Lecture. (2012). Dublin, Ireland. Retrieved from
Yo is this ageist? (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2013, from