Re-Conceptualizing 'Successful Aging' from Older Adults' Perspectives Using Public Deliberation

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Vaccarino, Oriana
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University of Guelph

Considering the lack of common understandings of successful aging in the literature, there is a need and an opportunity for older adults to collectively negotiate the meaning of ‘successful aging’. In this study, public deliberation (PD) is used to arrive at a collective understanding of ‘successful aging’, through the eyes of older adults. Twenty-nine participants (aged 65-95) from Guelph participated in a PD over 2 days. On day 1, participants collectively defined ‘successful aging’. On day 2, participants collectively identified practical implications of their conceptualization for their daily lives and their community. Disapproving of the term ‘successful’, participants decided on ‘optimal aging’, as better representing the process. For them, this term encompassed advocacy, independence, support systems, knowing how to access supports, living within your abilities, being prepared for death, being valued, a sense of connectedness, and contributing to society. The main collective action item that participants decided on was the need for increased communication regarding where to find community resources. While such deliberative ‘outputs’ are often taken at face value, I performed additional analyses to identify the thematic concerns and rhetorical features of their discussion that cut across the different phases of the deliberation. Such analyses can foreground both content and processes that do not make it into the collectively agreed upon deliberative outputs. The thematic analysis highlights older adults’ struggles to be recognized, visible, and accommodated in society, as well as their struggle of meeting or resisting societal expectations. An ideological dilemma analysis reveals some of the tensions involved in trying to transcend existing representations of aging. A key dilemma here stems from the sometimes conflicting desire to be seen both as able, valued, and productive members of society like other adults, while also advocating for societal accommodations for age-specific needs. The last analysis chapter is a reflection on the use of PD as a research tool, where I reflect on my experience and provide recommendations for future use of PD in research contexts. I conclude by discussing implications for how aging is conceptualized in gerontology, policy, and practice.

Successful Aging, Older Adults, Public Deliberation, Ideological Dilemma, Representations of Aging, Thematic Analysis, Optimal Aging, Participatory Research, Access to Supports, Preparedness for Death, Recognition of Older Adults, Invisibility of Older Adults