Successful aging and its discontents: a systematic review of the social gerontology literature

Gerontologist. 2015 Feb;55(1):58-69. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnu037. Epub 2014 May 9.


Purpose of the study: The purpose of this study was to analyze the range of critiques of successful aging models and the suggestions for improvement as expressed in the social gerontology literature.

Design and methods: We conducted a systematic literature review using the following criteria: journal articles retrieved in the Abstracts in Social Gerontology, published 1987-2013, successful aging/ageing in the title or text (n = 453), a critique of successful aging models as a key component of the article. Sixty-seven articles met the criteria. Qualitative methods were used to identify key themes and inductively configure meanings across the range of critiques.

Results: The critiques and remedies fell into 4 categories. The Add and Stir group suggested a multidimensional expansion of successful aging criteria and offered an array of additions. The Missing Voices group advocated for adding older adults' subjective meanings of successful aging to established objective measures. The Hard Hitting Critiques group called for more just and inclusive frameworks that embrace diversity, avoid stigma and discrimination, and intervene at structural contexts of aging. The New Frames and Names group presented alternative ideal models often grounded in Eastern philosophies.

Implications: The vast array of criteria that gerontologists collectively offered to expand Rowe and Kahn's original successful model is symptomatic of the problem that a normative model is by definition exclusionary. Greater reflexivity about gerontology's use of "successful aging" and other normative models is needed.

Keywords: Critical gerontology; Social gerontology; Successful aging.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Aged
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Female
  • Geriatrics*
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Quality of Life*
  • Social Support