What Do We Mean by "Successful Aging"? (55+)

Theories and suggestions about how to age well have a long history. However, with the United Nations projecting that the world’s population of the oldest-old (over 85) will triple by 2025, demands to age successfully, productively, optimally, actively, effectively and independently have accelerated. The most popular model of successful aging today suggests that maintaining full function to the end of life is possible and a matter of personal control, while other models insist that healthy and successful aging has age limits.

We will explore theories of successful aging and critically evaluate the philosophical, scientific, medical, political and economic issues informing each one. Our goal is to examine how each theory addresses important issues such as failed aging, ageism, disability, death and personal responsibility.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: The History of Successful Aging

Are notions of successful—and unsuccessful—aging unique to the 20th and 21 centuries as is often claimed, or can we find prototypes of both throughout history? This week we will review perceptions of aging in ancient Egypt, the Hebraic World, Greece, Rome, and in the Middle-Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment.  

Week 2: Gerontology and Successful Aging

Gerontology, the scientific study of aging, emerged in the 20th century, based on the premise that aging was “contingent” rather than inevitable. This week we will review the dominant paradigm in gerontology, Rowe and Kahn’s theory of successful aging, which has been credited (blamed?) for creating the contemporary obsession with successful aging.

Week 3: Psychological and Sociological Perspectives on Successful Aging

There has been significant resistance to the model of successful aging generated within gerontology, with psychology and sociology generating compelling alternative theories. This week we will explore theories of successful aging developed by theorists such as Paul Baltes, Erik Erikson, Laura Carstensen, Matilda Riley, Gene Cohen and Lars Tornstam.

Week 4: The Biology, Genetics and Epigenetics of Aging

Is maintenance of full function to the end of life possible and under personal control, as Rowe and Kahn insist, or does healthy and successful ageing have age limits, as other models suggest? We will review recent findings from biology, genetics and epigenetics to critically examine these competing perspectives on aging.

Week 5: The Politics, Ethics and Ageism of Successful Aging

This week focuses on the role of politics, ethics and ageism in the development of the successful aging movement. We will focus on three issues: health as an ethical rather than medical issue; neoliberalism and the demand for personal responsibility; and the relationship between ageism and the demand for agelessness.

Week 6: Successful Aging in Societies of Longer Lives

Aging experts agree many are living longer, healthier lives; however, recent research also reveals a high correlation between increased longevity and years lived with disability (.80). Is it possible to develop a more comprehensive concept of successful aging, one able to accommodate functional loss, dying and death as inevitable parts of aging?

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available online. Information will be provided to students in class.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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