Healthy aging


Healthy aging: “The process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age” (World Health Organization, 2020). Further elaborating on this concept, the WHO states that: “Functional ability is about having the capabilities that enable all people to be and do what they have reason to value. This includes a person’s ability to: 1) meet their basic needs; 2) learn, grow and make decisions; 3) be mobile; 4) build and maintain relationships; and 5) contribute to society” (WHO, 2020).

Using their photographs as a starting point, participants discussed their responses to the following two questions: What does old age actually look like to you, irrespective of what society and media depict as old age? and How would you like old age to be portrayed in media and popular culture? In general, the participants’ personal experiences of old age reflected the WHO definition of ‘healthy aging,’ which was also how they would like to see old age portrayed in media and popular culture. Participants from both groups presented positive images of ‘old age that were varied and thoughtful – representing perspectives they felt were very rarely shown in media and popular culture. However, because the topic of ‘healthy aging’ was only discussed by two of the younger participants, their responses will be included below in the section Perspectives on ‘healthy aging.’

Perspectives on 'healthy aging'

The images and discussion by participants in this section on healthy aging showed that in general participants viewed aging from the lens of ‘healthy aging’ and not ‘successful aging,’ although there were a few exceptions. Some had a point of view that resembled the ‘successful aging’ model, while others expressed concerns about the inequality embedded in the notion of ‘successful aging.’ Although the model of ‘healthy aging’ (as defined by the World Health Organization) has replaced the model of ‘successful aging’ it has not disappeared as a historical footnote. Instead, the influence and legacy of this concept continues to be debated and remains embedded in our perceptions about aging. Consequently, as ‘successful aging’ enters into the discussion below, a brief summary is necessary (see also ‘Concepts and definitions: Stereotypical models of old agefor more detail).

While the concept of successful aging may be grounded in an intention to promote healthy and positive aging, certain problems are embedded in this concept. In brief, according to Rowe and Kahn, their model of “successful aging” has three main principles: “low probability of disease and disease-related disability, high cognitive and physical functional capacity, and active engagement with life” (Rowe & Kahn, 1997: 433).  An analysis of this concept suggests that if an individual’s health declines in age, the fault is seen to lie with the individual which removes societal responsibility for frail older adults who are no longer healthy or productive, neatly fitting into neoliberal positions of individual responsibility and choice (Takaki, 2000; Dillaway & Byrnes 2009).

However, the emphasis from the majority of participants was on the ways in which older adults have active and healthy lives. They discussed this topic in terms of their own personal experiences of aging, as well as the need by the media and popular culture to promote representations of healthy aging. All of the older group of participants talked about the ways in which older adults stay engaged with life through a variety of activities that include: physical exercise (hiking, cycling, swimming, adventure sports); having fun (dancing, singing, performing); travelling; volunteering; gardening (alone and with others in a community garden setting); connecting to nature; exploring their creativity; maintaining intellectual curiosity; caring for pets; and having close intergenerational family relationships and/or engaging with people of different ages. Two participants from the younger group also discussed healthy aging in this way as well. One of those participants focused on physical activities, while the other younger age participant discussed the importance of encouraging positive intergenerational relationships. Participants felt that media and popular culture have a responsibility to change the current image of older age as frailty and/or passivity to one showing adults leading active and engaged lives, representing them in a variety of ways.

Reflecting the WHO’s definition of healthy aging, the perspective of ‘positive older age’ for the majority (8 out of 11) of the older age group of participants was not focused on maintaining perfect physical health or fitness, but adaptability – older adults adapting to the challenges of aging that can be  physical, cognitive and emotional in a variety of ways. They pointed out that while some fortunate older adults continue to enjoy good health even into the fourth age, others do not. But some of those fourth age older adults, despite health and/or mobility issues, try to maintain or improve their own health in a variety of ways that include making use of assistive devices to increase their mobility options and engaging with friends and the community. Through this process they continue to embrace life. As mentioned in the earlier section on ‘Frailty and care, this perspective on the ability to adapt to change in older age is reflected in literature from the Netherlands. In North America, successful aging is associated with remaining healthy and independent; whereas seniors in the Netherlands believe that the secret to successful aging lies in “adjustment” to the variety of challenges of old age (Von Faber & van der Geest, 2010).

One female participant also drew attention to the fact that when media and popular culture portray older people in a positive manner, they frequently show older adults participating in physical activities (hiking, cycling, kayaking). She questioned this representation as it excludes people with mobility issues who may also be engaged in life, but in other ways. Her perspective was also echoed by a male participant whose photo in this section, ‘Going Places,’ reflects his point of view on independence and mobility devices in older age. While a few participants view scooters and walkers as a sign of frailty and dependence, he regards them as a method of maintaining independence and staying engaged with the world. He wished that media and popular culture would provide positive images of older people using these devices, rather than showing them in a negative context which is the norm. His opinion was shared by 6 other participants. One of the other female participants also corroborated this perspective, emphasizing that these devices give people more control over their lives and “more freedom to create the kind of life that sustains them.” As such, participants suggested that media and popular culture need to portray the use of disability aides (assistive devices) in a positive manner. However, these participants also noted that assistive devices such as scooters reflect the socioeconomic inequality of older age as they are quite expensive and therefore not accessible to everyone.

Within the discussions on healthy aging, the majority of the participants in the older age group (5 females, and 3 males) emphasized the value of volunteering, both for the person volunteering and to their communities. They pointed out that volunteering takes many forms and is not restricted to people in perfect health. People with disabilities and/or mobility issues can (and do) engage in volunteerism in a number of ways. For example, older people: serve on committees; work with seniors’ organizations to help other seniors; volunteer at their local community centres; help out in shared community gardens; as well as many other types of volunteerism. Volunteering in their communities and helping other individuals also has a positive impact on the older volunteers who feel useful and respected by others, something that is too often missing for older adults in our culture.

The boomer generation and the ‘third age’

Another perspective was introduced into the healthy aging discussion by two female participants who strongly identified with their boomer generation cohort, and indirectly to Peter Laslett’s 1989 ‘third age’ concept of older age, which proposed that life following retirement is a unique, cohort driven approach to older age he defined as the “third age.” Laslett suggested that in place of ‘old age’ the retirement years provide older adults with greater agency outside the confines of work, enabling them to make individual choices that will translate into personally fulfilling lives in their new identity in the “third age.” (For more information on the “third age” see Stereotypical models of old age: Third age superheroes and fourth age super-agers in Concepts and Definitions.)

One of these participants criticized the way in which media and popular culture portray old age (See the ‘Frailty and care’ section for details). From her point of view, there are two categories of older age: younger old age, (active and independent adults in their 60s), and older old age, (which she defined as older adults who no longer have the capacity or independence to continue to participate in active living). She classified herself as being part of the younger old age group, which she felt was not represented by media and popular culture. Instead, she said that media and popular culture present all old age as older old age, which has not been her experience as an older person. Both of these participants described the boomer generation as a special generation. This participant wanted “the positive generational change brought by the Boomers to be reflected in popular culture.” As she said:  We are not like our grandparent’s generation. We look and act differently from that generation…We are staying active, looking good, wearing blue jeans and make up. We are active seniors engaged in healthy aging.” The other participant was in agreement with her, wanting media and popular culture to show Boomers as the active cohort they are. From her perspective, her cohort “is healthier and much more physically active than her parent’s generation; wealthier; often still working in older age; and very community-minded.” She strongly felt that the image of aging should change because it is not the way it used to be. The perception of aging reflected by these two participants finds resonance with Neugarten’s (1974) division of age into categories of the “young-old” and “old-old,” and Laslett’s (1989) concept pf the ‘third age.” (See ‘Defining and categorizing old age’ in Concepts and Definitions for more detail).

While the majority of participants were critical in their assessment of the representation of aging as frailty and decline by media and popular culture, one of the participant’s supporting the third age boomer model of aging, suggested that a few of the senior magazines, such as Zoomer and Inspired, presented more positive and inspirational images and messages. Rather than focus on the negative issues of older age, such as frailty in older age or the struggle that low-income seniors may face around the cost of housing, these magazines (Zoomer in particular) instead focus on seniors “being alive, vital and creative” – doing interesting and challenging things. Zoomer often features cover articles that highlight older artists, writers and musicians who have continued to produce award winning novels, great art and music in later life, while also providing short articles on activities like adventure travel. She felt that the ads in these two magazines were more balanced than other senior magazines she had seen. Ads in Zoomer had a blend of anti-aging ads for products like Botox and disability/frailty products, as well as other ads for upscale retirement living and travel, whereas the other magazine ads emphasized physical frailty and loss of capacity, which she felt generate negative emotions and opinions about older age.

One participant however provided a very different perspective on Zoomer Magazine in her discussion about film, TV and print media. She viewed Zoomer as having a negative influence on societal perceptions on aging and older age. From her point of view, Zoomer is marketed to affluent seniors, with an anti-aging focus embedded in youthfulness that encourages their readers to strive to stay young (or at least maintain an image of youthfulness). According to her, everyone in the magazine looks like they are still in their 50s, with very little diversity and very few people with grey or white hair, while the magazine’s cover articles generally promote people with celebrity status.

In this section on what old age looks like to participants, the older group of participants (and 2 of the participants from the younger age group) primarily focused on the positive side of old age. While the negative aspects of old age, such as illness and visits to the doctor, as well as the loss of family and friends were not denied (and in fact participants often emphasized that both sides of aging should be represented), they also very much wanted the joyful side of old age to be represented in media and popular culture. And too, most participants were aware of the socioeconomic inequalities that make ‘positive’ old age challenging for many individuals who are struggling with health issues, as well as housing and general financial insecurity. But even in this context, many older adults have more time to enjoy family and friends (including partners, older parents and grandchildren); engage in a variety of activities; pursue creative and intellectual interests; volunteer and give back to the community; and just enjoy life.

Going places

“What I see with the woman in the scooter is that she’s self-sufficient, she’s independent and perhaps she was able to drive and no longer able to drive. I don’t know the history but that’s what I would surmise and yet she’s getting on with life… This is an inspiring photo to me because it speaks of what’s possible. This is what I see as the bright side of older age…having first of all the time to do these things, but also having the amenities that we have whether it’s a scooter or a centre that basically caters to the needs of older people… [Many] people are used to an active life and maybe did a lot of walking and are maybe no longer able to do that, but they’re still able to get out and enjoy their community whether it’s through the assistance of canes or whether it’s the assistance of their own scooter. And so that allows them some independence and sense of freedom and able to enjoy life to a higher level than they perhaps would if they believe that they’re more limited and stay at home.”

[M. Bocking, age 72]

Community gardening

“Those of us that are older and are able to and interested in can get garden plots at [my senior’s apartment complex]… In the backyard there are garden plots for people and they love it. They can grow their vegetables or fruit or flowers or whatever and share it with their family or with the neighbours or yeah. It’s a good way, a healthy way of being outside and doing something… Growing something… I think food is always important too. And if we are still interested in producing our own food and being outside in nature, it shows what we can do… it’s that the interest is there to carry on no matter what age. If the body is healthy and willing then… and the mind sound, because I mean it makes a big difference, then it keeps us going from one season to the next season like everybody else really.”

[A. Cloosterman, age 70]

Working together

“This isn’t a staged photo it’s actually one from this summer. So that’s me and my stepdad W. So W is almost 70 now and so that’s his house, and this summer and the summer before we’ve been working on it. So he and I setup all that scaffolding together and we go up there and we do the siding. And so that’s just how I see him because to be that way is very normal. He’s almost 70 and he’s not saying, ‘oh, I can’t do that because I’m old’. He’s just like, ‘yeah, this is what I do’.”

[K. Meredith, age 31]

Pets and companionship

“Regardless of disabilities or not, many people still have a life that they share with either someone husband or wife or in this case a little pup, a dog that gives them companionship… Keeps them going, gets them out every day and… And it’s lovely to see that because these… It gives them a purpose, right, meaning. And they feel more secure to have their little pet with them. So that’s what I see that these people still have enjoyment in their life. I see the smiles on their faces when I meet them along the street and they’re just happy. They have a life still, a life that they enjoy regardless of if they can walk to the store or need a wheelchair to go… I see people with their little dogs and how happy they are because they’re outside and people ignore the wheelchair and look at the pup…and talk with them.”

[A. Cloosterman, age 70]

Single seniors groups

“The gentleman in the photo developed a single seniors meet and greet. It doesn’t cost anything. We meet every Wednesday morning. We go down to the Hillside Mall or wherever. And he has got like 50, 60 single seniors out doing things like a hike at Port Renfrew… It’s a wonderful group of seniors and we just [have fun]. If you can go, you go. There’s no pressure. If you can’t go, you can’t go. And we try to keep costs down for the trips… As a single person you cannot do anything. You have to have two people to go on a trip or you pay single supplement. And so, I joined it mainly to find people that would like to travel with me as a double for cost-wise… And to meet people that are active and want to do things…I just joined a few months ago and I’ve had nothing but fun… And you just feel safe…

I think this is what we need more – people like him that just get out there and do it out of the goodness of their hearts. [It’s] advertised for free in Inspire magazine and is really helping the seniors of Victoria… I talk to the different people that are attending. Some have been very lonely and they’re finding this group. One man was in tears. His wife died two years ago and he just hasn’t gotten out at all and now he’s found a bunch of people…”

[C. Meyer, age 68]

Seniors magazines

This is a collage of covers of Zoomer Magazine and Inspired, 55+ Lifestyle Magazine, magazines that are pitched to seniors. And the covers feature people who are seniors but who are very alive and vital and very creative, doing very powerful and positive things, everything from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip to people like Richard Hunt, a First Nations artist, the late Leonard Cohen, an unbelievably creative singer, poet and songwriter, and Jann Arden, a singer, broadcaster, etc. And I’m happy to say that these magazines exist because I don’t think they did ten or 15 years ago.

They have the same kinds of ads that some of the other seniors’ magazines have, which are about disability of one kind or another, but Zoomer and Inspired also have ads for adventure travel and for ads that are about interesting and challenging things that seniors can do. So, it’s a bit better balance.

[N.Cooley, age 73]

Lunch out

“[My wife and my son and his girlfriend in their 30s went into this coffee shop in Oak Bay]… It was really quite busy with 80% of the people there in their 20s and 30s… [Then I noticed] this little oasis with this one table with these two women who are clearly to me in their 80s just sort of almost oblivious. They are sitting there eating their food – maybe waffles and coffee, and they’re engaged in their conversation. And there they are in this sea of youth and these two older people are plunked down in the middle of them. And I thought, ‘well, good for them. This is probably a hangout for younger people, but they are certainly not put off by younger people. They have come for the experience and maybe they do it every week or maybe it’s regular, but this is their thing and they seem to be really enjoying it, but oblivious to what’s going on around them… I don’t think you would see that often which is why it struck me as being significant, because I wouldn’t have expected a couple of seniors of that age in a place like that. It sort of struck me as a little bit odd, but it’s refreshing – I mean, odd not in a bad way, but it’s like ‘you go girls, go for it’.”

[D. Kirkham, age 66]

Fun and adventure

“This is a collage of pictures [of] my husband and myself [when we were in our 50s and 60s]. It shows my husband zip-lining, it shows him BBQ’ing, it shows us going for a walk. We used to walk 10 kms a day. It shows us on a motorbike and then this is a picture of our engagement… … It shows us parasailing. And there’s words on the picture which say spontaneity, fun never asks how old you are, renew your spirit and maintain your independence and mastery…[The photos show that] I’m having a great time and I still do. I do anything I want to do – the same things as younger people [and I’m 68 now]…so don’t throw me away because I’m an older age…”

[anonymous, age 67]


“As [my parents] grew older they continued to embrace life… but it was a youthful way of doing it until their very final year. Up until then, they were fortunate enough to have their health, their mobility… They continued to enjoy life and be as active as they could. They loved nature. There was a park nearby and they used to go for walks in the park, and mum would go out and make sure the birds were fed and that kind of thing. So they instilled in me that growing old was a good thing and that one can embrace life at 23, 43, 63, 83. It doesn’t really matter……and other than the physical change, I really didn’t see a whole lot of change in them as they grew older. Their values were the same, their outlook on life was the same. They were pretty much open minded and liberal people. And I never really thought of them as being ‘old’ in that sense. I mean obviously there is frailty that comes into play as you age, but in terms of their spirit and attitude toward life, that really hadn’t changed all that much. And so that was refreshing to me… They were setting an example to a degree, maybe not knowingly, but they were. I thought if I can be like my parents when I am 75 or 80…then that’s great.”

[D. Kirkham, age 66]