We can’t be blind to the deficits of aging, but we needn’t wallow in them. The important question is how best to deal with decline in ways that bring satisfaction. The eminent psychologist, Paul Baltes, loved to tell a story about the very eminent pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, that points the way.
Just in case you are too young to remember, Rubinstein may have been the greatest concert pianist of the twentieth century. He played to sold-out houses well into his eighties, dazzling audiences with his virtuoso renditions of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky, and others. He was known for his extraordinary vitality. At an age when most musical artists slow down, Rubinstein was giving two concerts a week. Even in his dotage, one critic wrote, he could “transmit the joy of music.”
One day, when Rubinstein was eighty-one, an awestruck young TV interviewer asked him how he had sustained his virtuosity so far into old age. First, said the maestro, he plays fewer pieces, and not just fewer: he limits himself to those he loves and is still able to master. This kind of Selection, Baltes tells us, is the first of a three-part strategy for successful aging.
The second part of the strategy is called Optimization. Rubinstein practiced each of the selected pieces much more than in the past, and much more than he could if he continued to play a larger repertoire. At an old age, he could prepare his chosen repertoire better than in his youth.
The third strategy required a kind of slight of hand. “…to counteract his loss of mechanical speed he now used a kind of impression management, such as playing more slowly before fast segments to make the latter appear faster.” This is Compensation.
Selection asks us to develop and commit ourselves to obtainable goals. The goals vary from person to person. You might want to paint landscapes, to construct a Japanese garden, or to visit exotic, distant places. The key is to carefully align your desires and your resources to attain your goals. Once you identify your goals and decide you have a reasonable chance of reaching them, you have to commit to them.
There are two types of selection: elective and loss-based. “Elective selection aims at achieving higher levels of functioning. In contrast, loss-based selection is a response to the loss of previously available resources that are necessary to maintain functioning.” For instance, I now walk to get in shape where once I ran. Unless we want to give up, all of us need to accept the loss of some goals. No matter how I dream, I’m never going to play basketball again, to take one absurd example. But I can take long walks and I can write for hours, and they take up the room once occupied by more demanding activities.
Baltes’ emphasizes elective selection. “Selection promotes successful aging in a number of ways. To feel committed to goals contributes to feeling that one’s life has a purpose. Furthermore, goals help organize behavior over time and across situations and guide attention and behavior.” The very act of committed activity is health promoting.
As with Selection, we each seek optimization in varied and distinctive ways. To take a simple example, we each need to figure out how best to train our aging bodies to hike a favorite trail or learn to dance the Tango. We each decide how much time and energy we want to invest to optimize our chances of success. I say, be realistic—you don’t want to fail and discourage yourself too much—but generally, aim high.
Research does too. “Trying to achieve growth-oriented goals is associated with a higher degree of self-efficacy and leads to positive emotions and enhanced well-being. In old age, when losses are prevalent, it might be of particular importance to sustain growth-related goals for promoting well-being, rather than focusing primarily on losses.”
Compensation need not be as tricky as Rubinstein made it. It’s about finding alternative methods to achieve your goals. Let’s say you want to build a beautiful Japanese garden. When young, you might haul all of the rocks and soil by yourself. When older, you can hire some young people to do the heavy lifting. You’d still be the creative force behind the project. Or, you still want to run a 10K race. To do so, you might cut down on the training miles and increase the time on the yoga mat.
Compensation requires mental flexibility. It asks you not to confuse the goal with the method of achieving the goal. While keeping your goal in mind, think as freely as you can about all the possible routes to get there, and then choose the one that will most likely lead to success.
Baltes urges us not to compromise on our goals too quickly. “…it might be more adaptive to maintain one’s goal by acquiring new resources or activating unused internal or external resources for alternative means of pursuing goals.”
The SOC model isn’t magic but it’s a damn good project design for living well during our later years. It asks us to be thoughtful and open minded about what we want to do and what will give us satisfaction. I’d bet that most of us have kept a lid on our own potential. Take the lid off for a while, at least in your mind. Then experiment before committing to goals. Even the initial commitment may require a leap of faith. If you’re going down uncharted waters, you can’t be sure about the outcome, but you do put yourself in position to learn what is possible and to grow in certainty.
Eventually, your new path will feel natural. It will be easier to place your full resources behind it. We all know how great it feels to put doubts behind and to go full bore towards some goal, however imperfect. Engaged in that way, we literally lose self-consciousness. As Arthur Rubinstein is when playing Chopin, we are at one with what we are doing. We become timeless and ageless. There is nothing better.