Analysis of the focus group transcripts suggested four central themes to describe successful aging: Connecting and Relating, Temporality, Perception and Interpretation, and Activity. The focus groups also yielded content areas for interventions aimed at promoting successful aging.
Connecting and Relating involved three subcategories—spirituality, friends and social life, and spouse. Black and White participants identified spirituality as a means of connecting with a higher power, all specifically mentioning God or the Lord. For example, one White woman said, “I feel like God has a plan and He’s the one that’s setting it in motion. And you live one day at a time, and if something happens that’s in the plan, it’s not your plan, maybe, but I feel like it’s for a reason.”
Another White woman described the importance of “living one day at a time, trusting the Lord.” Participants described drawing strength from their spirituality; one White woman described the importance of “doing my part; God is more powerful than us” and “acknowledging His will.” Another White woman reported that her spirituality inspired her to “Live one day at a time, trusting in the Lord, do the best you can, things fall where they may”; she believed that this way of living and believing was “part of successful aging.”
Although both races brought up spirituality as an aspect of their aging successfully, subtle variations were noted between Black and White participants. For example, White participants tended to talk about a spiritual perspective (Reed, 1991), whereas Black participants mentioned the church or relationships with people in the church rather than a “higher power”; one Black woman explained, “I stay busy in the church and the activities keep me on my toes,” and another Black woman specifically stated “church family” was an important element of her aging successfully. This finding could reflect the fact that some Black participants were recruited from a church; however, Black participants were recruited because they attended the senior lunch program provided by the church, not because they were members (and some were not congregation members). On the other hand, White participants offered explanations of how their awareness of God and feeling of connection with something greater enabled them to age successfully. One White woman described how she “lived one day at a time, trusting the Lord.” White participants emphasized their awareness of God’s presence “daily,” whereas Black participants referenced social or religious gatherings “every week” or at holidays.
A second subcategory of connecting and relating was friends and social life. Participants of both races talked about the meaning they derived and fulfillment experienced from friends and social relationships. They described the nature/situations through which they engaged in these relationships. One Black woman said, “I enjoy seeing all of my friends at the Y and the water aerobics instructor,” while another described being “happy, enjoying life, friends” as key features of successful aging. However, Black participants tended to describe the emotional aspects of relating to friends and social connections, whereas White participants focused on the types of people with whom they related. For example, White participants reported that “friends are considered family” and repeatedly described the “fellowship” or “companionship” as key elements of successful aging. In contrast, Black participants offered “enjoyment” and feeling “happy” as things they derived from the friendships. Thus, although both racial groups attributed their successful aging, in part, to the fact that they engaged in meaningful relationships, the explanations of why the relationships were important to aging successfully were slightly disparate.
However, when asked about whether the presence of a spouse influenced successful aging, one Black woman reported, “It sure doesn’t” whereas another Black woman added:
A lot of females out there, widows. But I know quite a few who have I think significant others, come to think of it, I don’t think that any of these attractions have resulted in marriage, but I do know several who spend part of the time at so and so’s house, and part of the time in their own.
White participants responded similarly; one woman expressed, “Males have to find someone,” explaining that she did not feel the need to do so. This participant expanded further, reporting that her husband had been married four times and had numerous health problems, implying that not only did women not need a spouse, but that perhaps they were better equipped to age more successfully. Women of both racial groups were of the opinion that the presence of a spouse was not a necessary component for successful aging, although men (of either race) had no comments in response to this question. Although participants of either race did not offer extensive commentary on the presence of a spouse, they seemed to accept the idea of significant others or companions, but such partners were not viewed as essential for successful aging.
Temporality was a second major theme noted. Participants frequently turned the discussion to their experiences and history, but they also expressed concerns and views about the future. Subtle nuances distinguished the subcategories of this theme—impressions of the past, family and history, and future generations.
Impressions of the past were particularly salient for Black participants. One woman stated:
I stayed under my grandmother’s feet and learned as much as I could. I learned how to sew, cook, and tend house from my grandmother. She raised me. She did the best she could because we really did not have nothing.
This woman went on to describe the importance of passing on the teaching “as much as possible to the young folks.” Another Black woman described memories of the past: “I really had a great experience growing up in the country; we did not have much, but we survived and we had food to eat.” Black participants particularly emphasized the struggles they had overcome. One Black woman said, “When you have someone to show you what the right things are to do and how they should be done, it makes it a little easier for growing up.” Participants reflected a great deal on their past and how these times compared to the present. Although Black participants’ accounts seemed more closely related to their present circumstances, White participants talked about the past in a more detached manner, with less affective expression. For example, as one White man reflected on the past, he commented “after World War II you didn’t see a car on the road after midnight unless there was a death.... Or they would stop and rob you.” This participant went on to describe life today, stating his belief that “it’s dangerous.”
Another subcategory of the temporality theme was family and history. Participants talked about how their history and family experiences had influenced them, in good times and bad. For example, one Black woman reported, “I know that my childhood was full of hard times and we were very poor. But we were honest, hard working people and we did not mind following the ways of living in southern Georgia, where I grew up.” This participant went on to say that as a child, she had planned to leave her small southern town “and never return.” Although she did relocate, she remained in the south (NC), where she assumed care of an elderly aunt.
Similarly, White participants described how teachings from their families had a lifelong influence on them, contributing to their successful aging. For example, one White woman reflected, “Our parents’ teaching means more as we age.” A White man noted his parents’ influence on him in setting an example of a strong work ethic: “Nobody’s worked harder than my mother and dad and...they raised every single thing and they lived until my mother was 93,” as he described the value he placed on hard work as contributing to his successful aging. However, unlike Black participants, White men and women acknowledged family as a source of conflict at times. One pair of White husband and wife participants described conflict that had endured for years over a deceased sibling’s unsettled property division, and how this had distanced their family members, resulting in chronic stress and making successful aging more of a challenge for them.
However, more participants demonstrated a sense of pride and strength in their family experiences. One Black woman said:
I grew up on a reservation and we had to work on the tobacco fields with my granddaddy every day. I did not know what school was until I went to G----boro and visited my cousins during a time of a funeral and found out that they went to school and could read. I told my grandmother that I wanted to learn to read and the next year I went to live with my cousins in G----boro and went to school. I was so far behind and the other children made fun of me but once I learned what I needed to, it was all right.
Another White woman said, “Most of us grew up with parents who said you went to church regardless of what happened. Nothing else happens on Sunday.” Participants repeatedly gave vivid accounts of their past, both difficult and pleasant, and talked about how these experiences had shaped who they were today and how the characteristics or skills they had developed contributed to their successful aging. Both Black and White participants talked in particular about the importance of adhering to their parents’ teachings.
Participants also described their own concerns and sense of duty to future generations, with one Black woman stating:
I think that it is important for young people to slow down and realize how precious life is. These young people do not seem to take things seriously. My granddaughter is 17 and does not know how to cook yet.
Another Black participant stated, “I think that it is important for us to teach the young folks as much as possible.” White participants provided comparable statements. Said one man: “My 17-year-old [granddaughter] was over the house yesterday and she didn’t really know how to vacuum.” A woman added: “Well you have to be taught to do things not just automatically; just know how to do it well.” The White participants also expressed concern about younger generations’ lack of preparation and life skills. “Too often the parents let the TV and computer babysit for them. They’re not teaching them,” expressed one White participant.
As they discussed their concerns for future generations, White participants’ apprehensions about “technology” became apparent. “That’s the problem with young kids, they’re letting electronics run their lives. They are taking over and they’re not thinking for themselves, they’re letting a machine think for them,” said one White woman. In contrast, Black participants did not bring up the topic of technology. Temporality was apparent in both Black and White participants’ phrases, such as “hurry up” and (the need to) “slow down” as they expressed concerns about their grandchildren being able to age successfully. Participants of both races often referred to what they had learned over their lifetimes, alluding to their experiences as a teacher to today’s youth, and their desire to testify or teach future generations.
Perception and Interpretation, the third major theme, included subcategories characterized as mental and cognitive and adjusting (behaviors, ways of being). One Black woman said, “You don’t sit down and say well, I am getting old and I can’t do that. I think that some of it is mental, too.” A White man suggested that successful aging is “mind over matter—don’t discuss your pains.” White participants in particular had much to say about the role of perception and interpretation in successful aging, offering many suggestions indicative of a “can do, so go!” attitude (Table 3), whereas Black participants were less prescriptive (i.e., offering less firm directives).
Table 3: Southern White Participants’ Suggestions for Aging Successfully
Participants also discussed their values: One Black woman expressed a need to “realize how precious life is.” Other Black women described enjoying life and friends, and said “things are more enjoyable” or “enjoying simple things” were part of successful aging.
Getting “outside” oneself (White woman) and thinking of others (White woman) were also identified as features of successful aging. Other values that White participants noted included being proud, being thankful for what you have, and aging gracefully. White participants were more directive than Black participants in offering suggestions and advice for aging successfully; Black participants were more reflective and reminiscent in their discussions.
The second subcategory in perception and interpretation (for White participants) was adjusting. Participants talked about conscious decisions they had made in response to life events, with new ways of thinking and subsequent behavior changes. One White man said he “Used to hit that good old bottle” but in his second marriage, he “quit drinking and smoking…been married 36 years” and now volunteered for others with mental illness and alcoholism. Participants were clear about the importance of choice in aging successfully. For example, one White woman talked about how she went back to school and “had choices after divorce…not complaining.” Participants’ comments also reflected resilience in coping with adversity. Some participants (primarily Black) specifically alluded to decline or deterioration as part of aging, as they described how they had adjusted to such things and still aged successfully. Descriptions were not necessarily positive or happy; for example, one Black woman said:
When you have a lot of health problems [it] is not pleasant and you look at yourself as being a problem on others, especially your family members.... It is a job trying to find someone to do things for you, especially when they have things to do for themselves.
For this woman, successful aging meant not necessarily the absence of health problems, but the ability to continue to manage routine tasks and responsibilities; in the face of multiple health problems, she viewed this as a challenge. She found new ways of accomplishing things by relying on others’ assistance. Similarly, another Black woman described having to adjust her daily routine to meet her husband’s needs:
There have been a lot of changes for me since my husband became sick and cannot drive anymore. I have to do everything that needs to be done for him. When I have things to do for him, I have to rearrange my stuff to get it done after I have helped him.
This woman felt her adaptation to her husband’s needs permitted her to still age successfully. Likewise, one White man reported he had a “hard time walking because of my back, doctors had me borderline diabetic, [I] had surgery, now diabetes doesn’t show…exercise will help…walk at least one mile a day.” Another White man offered that his “Diabetes is normal now, checking it daily with medicine.” Thus, both races acknowledged there was some decline with aging, but to them, success meant managing that decline with various strategies.
The fourth major theme was activity, and this included the subcategories of mobility, independence, exercise, and nutrition. Participants described efforts to maintain their mobility as part of successful aging. One Black woman said:
Since I have stopped working and retired, I do not go up and down steps anymore. I have a hard time getting up and down steps now. Also, I walk every day, just a little short walk around the block, because I have discovered that by not walking my balance is gone. By walking, I don’t fall as much and also I go to water aerobics 5 days a week and chair aerobics 3 days per week.
Although many participants described activities that required them to be ambulatory, they made it clear that mobility was not a prerequisite for successful aging, as suggested by one White man’s comment: “As far as being able to do things, are we able to walk, some can, some can’t. Some can’t walk but some can play computer games.” A Black woman echoed his sentiments, relating how she had modified her walking route and avoided steps. What seemed most important to participants was doing the best one could, and adapting.
A second subcategory was independence; participants talked about their ability to go and do, and work. One Black woman stated:
I have to have someone drive me some times when my arthritis in my knee starts acting up. My daughter tries to help me as much as possible but I try not to bother her that much, but when I need her, she comes and helps me out.
I hate waiting on people to do things for me; it gets to be crazy sometimes. I like to know that I can get up and go when I need to and if my car is broken or won’t crank, I just wait until I get it fixed before I go anywhere…. If I cannot make it to the doctor, I call them and make another appointment.
Other Black women offered similar statements:
- “I love to be able to go when I get ready and wherever I want to go.”
- “I have always had to do for myself.”
- “My family does not do much for me and I am OK with that because I will do for myself as long as possible.”
- “I like doing stuff on my own as much as possible. I do not bother people, you know how they say old people be worrying them, so I do not bother my children or grandchildren for anything.”
Likewise, White participants emphasized the importance of “being independent” (woman) and “do(ing) for yourself as long as you can” (woman).
Participants often identified exercise, a third subcategory of activity, as important for successful aging. One Black woman said:
I usually go to the Y…twice a week for water aerobics, and the water aerobics has really helped me and strengthened my legs and I noticed that I can walk better, too. I think that the exercise is helping me be healthier and making me stronger in the process.
A number of White participants described various forms of exercise:
- “3 times a week on machine, weights.”
- “Exercise every day.”
- “Exercise will help, walk at least one mile a day.”
- “If you raise a garden you know you get your exercise.”
Some participants mentioned efforts to ensure good nutrition as part of successful aging. “Getting older you know that your body is decreasing and you take a few vitamins, especially my C and B vitamins,” said one Black woman, whereas another stated, “I think that your food that you eat has a lot to do with it. I was always told to eat healthy foods, now I drink a lot of juices.” A White man reported, “I raise a garden, eat my own food, and know what’s been sprayed on it.” Another White man with diabetes admitted, “I know it’s [his diet] scary but I try to stick to it, but sometimes I get off of it,” noting that eating healthy was not always easy and diabetes could be a challenge to manage.
Participants noted that being Southern had affected their aging, making them more resilient. One Black woman said:
Being black and living in the south was a challenging thing, but we made it because we did not bother anyone and we minded our own business. It was difficult because it was 12 of us but we did it, and my father made sure that we kept a roof over our heads and had food to eat. We did not have meat every night, but we did have something to eat… We were poor, but we were a proud family.
One of her peers, also a Black woman, said:
It has always been a struggle as a Black person, but me and my family have not let that stop us from anything. I am a college graduate…We never let being Black hold us back from anything, especially a good education. It was hard and we had some hard trying times, but we made it.
Thus, these participants had a fondness and appreciation for their Southern heritage and saw their past as a source of strength that they carried with them into older adulthood. In contrast, White participants tended to be less descriptive about the influence of race or region on their successful aging and focused on more superficial aspects. For example, in one focus group meeting, several White participants reminisced about starting to work “at a young age” and then lapsed into conversation about Southern foods they used to take in their school lunches.