­Successful Aging: Finding the Fifth Level

The Older Nebraskan’s Voice

Vol. 7, No. 1, 1976, 23-24


Roger Hiemstra is looking for the secret of successful aging. There are some people, "self-actualized individuals," he says, who are at "the upper pinnacle to which most people aspire but never reach. . . where you really have your head on, you're a mature person, you're calm, at peace with the world. You sort of have a fifth-level understanding of the world. Few people ever achieve that, but some of the very greats do."


These are the people Dr. ("call me Rog") Hiemstra has been conducting interviews with. But the story goes back much further. During an adult education research project, Hiemstra made a startling discovery. "We were attempting to discover obstacles that prevented elderly people from participating in institutional forms of adult education,” he said. “We found, much to our amazement, that a lot of stereotypes began to get torn down, that the older person in Nebraska is heavily involved in learning, most of it outside of the institutional, classroom approach."


And when he compared the hours these "self-directed" learners spent learning with the differences in their background—age, sex, race, marital status, educational background—he found "no significant differences." Since "about 99 per cent of what we adult educators do is all expert-planned, classroom-style learning," Hiemstra concluded that "adult educators are only reaching the tip of the iceberg . . . we really have to change ourselves around."


The study left him intrigued. He had had his eyes opened about the learning habits of old people. He wanted to learn more. "I wanted to do a study of some very mentally active people, people I term "successfully aged." By inquiring around, he was able to find thirty people "who by reputation are very active in their home-life, . . . and engaged in learning all the time." After conducting thirty "probing in-depth" interviews, Hiemstra began to compare the personal histories of those he had interviewed. He was looking for background influences, "casual vari­ables, that relate to what I call, "successful aging," he said. Hiemstra tried to isolate as many of these "casual variables" as he could. He looked at the occupation of parents, their educational background, and such influences as "was reading fostered in the home?" He thoroughly analyzed his taped recordings, hunting for clues that might lead him to an understanding of "successful aging." 


"I don't think it's a magical secret that you can peddle to anybody," he said. "It seems to be a whole series of things that happen to some that doesn't happen to some others. You can almost see it in some people's faces."    He found many things that did not seem to make any difference. Money, for example. "Other than total poverty, I saw all types of situations. Some of my people were fairly poor, but money didn't really mean too much to them. They had achieved a satisfaction in life that went beyond their material needs, so money wasn't a variable." Health did not seem to be important either. Hiemstra talked with people who had "all sorts of disabilities," that appeared to have little impact on their way of looking at life. "It's something deeper than that," Hiemstra concluded.


Education played a role, but "it's not necessarily high amounts of formal education," that was the important factor. More than half of those interviewed had either been school teachers at some part of their lives or, if not, had parents who were schoolteachers. "It's an attitude," he said. "It's not the amount of education, but you take what a teacher has to do, to be able to constantly update, to be able to relate to a lot of different kinds of people, it's an attitudinal thing in life that's important."


Of the thirty older people interviewed, more than two-thirds were first-born children. Hiemstra noted that much research has been done on first-born children, "their success ratio is high," he said. Of these thirty people, a large number were engaged in writing. Many had written books on poetry, several had recently joined writing clubs or had had articles published. But such specific, readily isolated factors were unusual. The more compelling characteristics Hiemstra found tended to run more to the abstract.


"There is a fierce independence in these people. They're highly self-motivated. They've overcome all sorts of adversity in their lives. One thing that came out, and it was said in different ways, was that you have to have stored up in your lifetime a reserve of what they call 'inner resource'—an inner storehouse of satisfactions and experiences that you can draw upon in older years."        


Hiemstra is convinced that his research projects can help adult educators serve the community. "I would guess that there are some I clues that could come out of this that could help others. Obviously, if a person is a third born, you can't make them a firstborn, but you can uncover from the research what is important about being a firstborn and maybe translate that. . . there I are a lot of things that we can do."


The successful aging study appears to be leading Hiemstra into further studies on senility. "I am convinced that a person of any age is very capable of learning, learning new things and learning heavy things. So much of what is done in nursing homes tends to be artsy-craftsy kinds of things, painting by numbers or putting glitter on glue, things that would be humiliating to kids."


Senility could easily be a "defense step" for many people, Hiemstra suggests. "There are a lot of people (in nursing homes) who are very intelligent, very well-educated. If you can involve people in learning projects, using each other as resources, I'd suspect that you could create an environment that would be fantastic. . . a vibrant kind of thing where they're involved all the time."


Hiemstra hopes that his research can have an impact on the lives of people of any age. "The real answer," he said "is in changing the attitudes of society. We must change our whole approach to working with the older person, our whole approach to the importance of older people." “I got so turned on by my interviews, it made a significant impact on my life. It's probably going to direct my research for the rest of my life, there's no doubt about that. It's given me a greater appreciation of the aging process and the potential of myself as an aging person."


I consider myself fortunate to have sat at the feet of three or four of these self-actualized people. They're very private, and yet they've achieved a personal greatness that you have to be with them a while before you uncover. I have to find a way of putting this down on paper so I can share it with others. They were completely at peace with themselves and the world."