December 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 6 // Ideas at Work // 6IAW2

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The Meaning of Aging

This article discusses findings from a study exploring the inner world of older people's life experiences and how they felt about being old. Freedom, slowing down, loss, changes, companionship, loneliness, faith, and active engagement were main themes. Social access provided opportunities for older people to fulfill their sense of belonging and productivity. They believed "being old is being sick." Because they were capable, they did not think they were old. They felt aging not only meant losing independence and dignity, but also having more experiences. These findings are critical for Extension educators, who should rethink the meaning of aging and how to respond to the needs of the elderly.

Nina Chen
Human Development Specialist
University of Missouri Outreach and Extension
Independence, Missouri
Internet Address:

In our society, there are some positive and negative views of aging. Some people believe being old is being sick and that you just cannot teach old dogs new tricks. Other people believe being old is having freedom, wisdom, and enjoyment. (Carlsen, 1991; Rowe & Kahn, 1998; Coleman, Ivani-Chalian, & Robinson, 1998).

With a growing older population, aging has become an important issue for Extension. Extension provides programs and services for senior citizens, but how much knowledge about older people's life experiences and needs do we have?  This article explores what older people's lives look like, what aging means to them, and how Extension can respond to aging issues.


Phenomenological research was used to explore the experiences and meaning of older people's lives. The research methodology used open-ended interview questions and thematic analysis to explore deeper insights into life experiences and the meaning of aging.

An invitation to participate in this study was announced at two senior citizens centers in Jasper County, Missouri. Ten male and 10 female Caucasians ages 63 to 83 volunteered to participate. Ten participants were widowed and lived alone in a single house or senior apartment. Eighteen were retired. Four had a part-time job, and 12 did volunteer work. Nine of them had moved from metropolitan areas to Jasper County after they retired.

Each participant was interviewed alone by a human development specialist for 2 hours at the senior citizens center. The questions focused on what aging meant to them, what their lives looked like, and their feelings about being old. The participants' responses were checked and rechecked through dialogue and questions that helped find significant themes. The highlighting approach was the essential significant phrase to form thematic aspects. The intention of the study is to provide an in-depth look at the meaning of aging and develop a valuable understanding of older people's life experiences.

The Voices of Older People

What Older People's Lives Look Like

Freedom, slowing down, companionship, loss, changes, loneliness, faith, and active engagement were main themes. Everyone mentioned the enjoyment of freedom and the challenge of physical decline. Freedom from work and financial strain gave them choices to do volunteer work, attend activities, and enjoy their lives.

Slowing down has brought some mixed feelings to their lives. Some people wanted to do more and felt disappointed that they had to slow down. Others felt good because they have time to enjoy their lives more. One man said "Being able to slow down is a good thing for us. My wife and I always take time to do things and enjoy our lives together." Slowing down provided quality time for older couples to enrich their companionship. They spent more time together to travel, visit, and do things together. Losing a spouse was difficult for older people to cope with. A couple of widowers felt their lives were incomplete without a partner.

Changing location was also a challenge for them. Some older people expressed their difficulties becoming part of the community because they were from outside the community. A 66-year-old man said, "We moved here five years ago. We have tried to get to know our neighbors, but it has been very hard. This area is growing, but people usually don't want to deal with people from outside."

Because of change and losses, loneliness was a common feeling for the widowed, in particular during weekends. One widower said "I have to keep myself busy. Otherwise I feel very lonely on weekends. Weekends can be the worst days for me. I usually do laundry, clean my house, and work on my yard. Sometimes, I go to Wal-Mart to walk around to see things and people, even if I don't need to buy things. That makes my time fly fast."

Whether or not they had spouses, friendship was a very strong emotional support to fulfill a need of belonging and social interaction. A 73-year-old widower said, "Old friends are just like gold, and good friends are just like sunshine. They are special. Older persons need to have friends to support each other."

Besides friendship, they felt that spiritual belief gave them purpose for living and a peaceful mood. One man said, "Faith gives me purpose for living and serving others." Another one said, "Faith lifts my spirit to have positive attitudes and look forward to everyday life."

Serving others and engaging in communities and senior citizens centers increased their productivity. They valued senior citizens centers and enjoyed visiting people there. A 72-year-old widower said, "My life would be miserable if there were no senior citizens centers. I like to come to the center and help serve coffee or tea. I can practice remembering people's names and talk to them when they are in line."

What Aging Means

Some people expressed that aging means change, loss, and not being able to do anything. One said,"Getting older means more years to add to your life, less active, less hair, more medicine, more wrinkles, arthritis, and more forgetful." They felt that when people get older, they lose their dignity and independence. Common responses included the following. "Being old means you need someone to help." "Being old means not being able to do anything." They were sorry for older persons who could not take care of themselves.

Because they were capable of doing things and being active, they felt they were not old. "I am not old" was a common response. Age was just a number to them. One widow said, "Age is just a number. I don't like the number because people usually view the age in a negative way." Some people did not even like to hear the word "aging" or "old" because of negative perceptions about being old. Although they did not think they were old, about half of them admitted that they had no choice. One said, "Aging does not mean anything to me. I am not old. But I will get there and have no choice."

However, they also felt being old means more experiences and having privileges, for instance, senior discounts, senior centers, affordable housing for seniors, and senior support groups. Some people expressed that getting older means getting wiser. One man said, "Older people are just like a walking library. They have true stories not fiction, you only go around once when you get older."

Implications for Extension

These older people are active in social interactions and volunteer work. They are looking for opportunities to continue to be independent and keep dignity. Social access can help motivate these people's active engagement and fulfillment. While companionship, friendship, and faith play a significant role in older people's lives, they have to face some challenges, such as physical decline, loss, and changes. They felt they were not in an "old" category. "Being old is being sick" is still a common belief among them. Aging to them not only means losing independence, freedom, and dignity, but also having more experiences and wisdom.

While these findings should not be generalized, Extension educators should be alert to these themes in the lives of other older people, when similar situations are found. What are some implications for Extension?

Because each county has different resources and needs, Extension can use focus groups, aging forums, interviews, surveys, etc. to identify aging issues. This process can help find sources and develop programs to meet the needs of the elderly.

Extension educators from interdisciplinary areas should work together to develop programs. For instance, teach different age groups about aging issues. Even children and teenagers need to learn about aging awareness. 4-H, after school programs, summer camp, and other Extension programs can include intergenerational programs to help younger generations learn about the issue. Farmers, adults, and consumers need to learn preparation for retirement, changes, and successful aging.

Offering educational programs is a key to empowering older people. Extension can collaborate with other agencies and groups to offer support groups dealing with grief, widowhood, coping skills, relocation, retirement, etc.

Finally, Extension educators should be proactive in working with agencies to provide social access, especially in rural areas, and in helping older people be actively engaged in their lives. They should partner with senior centers, senior groups, community coalition, and senior housing to offer programs.

The programs should include fun, educational, and social components. If there is no social access for older people, Extension can initiate opportunities to involve older adults in the process to create a better social access and living environment. The more social access the older people have, the more happiness they will have because of their connection with others.

Note: This article was presented as a paper in 1999 at the Fourth Global Annual Conference on Aging in Canada.


Carlsen, M. (1991). Creative aging: A meaning-making perspective. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Coleman, P. G., Ivani-Chalian, C., & Robinson, M. (1998). The story continues: Persistence of life themes in old age. Aging and Society, 389-419.

Rowe, J., & Kahn, R. (1998). Successful aging. New York: Pantheon Books.