What does it mean to age well? Before the advent of modern society and modern medicine the question wasn’t asked much. Having enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, avoiding serious injury and infectious disease, having some support from others, and living past age 65 was about all one might expect. Living to that ripe old age was also relatively rare. Older adults have always ruminated on their individual experience of growing old (for example, see Roger Angell’s modern classic “This Old Man” from the February 17th issue of the New Yorker), but society talking about coming to a shared understanding of successful aging and the challenges in getting there is a modern day occurrence. Having a public policy discussion on the challenges of aging that go beyond basic health needs is an even more recent occurrence.

With the skyrocketing life span we now enjoy along with basic guarantees of food, shelter, and health care through Medicaid and Medicare, older adults in greater and greater number are expecting more out of life than mere survival. The impending retirement of the 74 million strong baby boom generation will raise the bar on the question, what does it mean to age well? Facing perhaps decades of life after the “normal” retirement age of 65, it is not a trivial question to ask not only how can one live, but how can one live well. No generation in history has been faced with the question quite to the extent we are looking at it now.

Gerontologists and other researchers are also addressing the question of what does it mean to age well. An overwhelming consensus is emerging that aging well is more than simply maintaining physical and cognitive function. It also includes having opportunities to stay engaged with the world in a meaningful way. That expanded definition begs another question. Does one now age well just because of individual decisions and/or fortunate circumstances? Or does public policy now also have a role to play in the experience coming generations will have of aging?

According to Dr. Nancy Hooyman, Professor and Dean Emeritus at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work and the chair of the upcoming “Elder Friendly Futures” conference, the answer is an unqualified “Yes.”

“The 2014 UW Elder Friendly Futures conference  will look at the challenges to building elder-friendly futures in which all older people can thrive,” says Dr. Hooyman.

In its second year, the conference will look at how a variety of organizations including non-profits, governmental entities, business and community groups are working to create programs designed to support the current and coming wave of older Americans.

Participants will learn about programs that support aging in place and promote elder friendly environments, acquire strategies to engage older adults to age in their communities of choice, explore ways to address barriers to aging in place and health disparities faced by underserved communities, and tap into existing networks  and imagine new academic-community partnerships  across disciplines and professions.

“A 2013 attendee commented that the conference ‘really helped me think about what it means to support people in aging, beyond just tending to their medical needs,’” adds Dr. Hooyman.

An elder friendly future where millions of older adults are in fact “aging well” beyond basic physical and mental health will no doubt require the support of society at large. We don’t all live in small towns anymore with extended families who will be there for us as we age.

The Elder Friendly Futures conference will be held at the University of Washington on October 8-9, 2014. See their website for registration details.

photo credit: Elderly Couple via photopin (license)