What is Dynamic Aging?

Dynamic aging is a unique, systemic, more fully engaged, and proactive approach to one’s own aging process. It is informed by the latest theory and research from multiple sciences – including gerontology, positive psychology, neuroscience, sociology, cognitive psychology, physiology, and developmental psychology. It is also grounded in a newer and more accurate view of reality – or worldview – than other aging theories, which I believe is best described in the literature on Dynamic Systems (or Complex Adaptive Systems) Theory.

A Dynamic Systems Worldview

This new worldview, which I will refer to as Dynamic Systems Theory, is based on the emerging reality of an increasingly complex world. Complexity can be defined as “an increasing number of independent variables interacting with each other with accelerating frequency” (Tower, 2002). The primary reason for this increasing interaction among an increasing number of independent variables in the world today is the rapid proliferation of communications technology. In other words, the increasingly higher rate of change we are currently experiencing is being created through a growing interaction between people, cultures, ideas, religions, morals, perspectives, values, etc. – all of which is unprecedented in world history – and made increasingly possible through a growing use of the internet, cell phones, computers, television, social networking, and other communications technology.

Change occurs in human systems all by itself through this type of interaction. No direct action by any particular person or nation is necessary. Instead, change simply “emerges” from the interaction – often unpredictably – because there are so many interacting variables, each acting and reacting with others in an irregular and sometimes volatile manner. These interactions create small changes (in perspectives, opinions, ideas, ways of doing things, etc.), which can slowly or more quickly catch on with a growing number of people, and suddenly balloon into major systemic change. There is also no reversing this process – since a majority of the world has barely yet been exposed to modern communications technology, and the technology itself continues to escalate the rate of interaction between its users. More likely, the rate of interaction in the world will continue to increase in the future, and quite possibly at an escalating rate.

This increasing rate of interaction between a growing number of the world’s population has, and will continue to result in an escalating rate of world change. In order to thrive (or perhaps even survive) in such a world, a person must base their personal strategies on a worldview that reflects this growing new reality. For most people (especially older adults) this involves shifting their underlying beliefs from a more static systems worldview (i.e., low change rates, the desirability of closed systems, the belief that order is created by stability, simple cause and effect thinking, linearity, predictability, ability to control situations, etc.), to a belief system which reflects the actual circumstances of an increasingly interrelated, interactive, and changing environment. The Dynamic Systems Theory view of reality can be summarized simply as follows:

  • The future is largely unpredictable.
  • Control is an illusion.
  • Stability leads to decline.
  • Order is created through continuous fluctuation and change.
  • Change emerges from system interaction.
  • Interaction and change are increasing at an accelerating rate.
  • Everything is interrelated and interdependent.
  • The only way to avoid entropy (system decline) is through the infusion of new energy – to be used for the continuous re-creation and renewal of the system.
  • To survive or thrive, system components must engage energetically with their environments and become fluidly adaptable to the changes occurring in the larger system.

Implications of an Increasingly Dynamic World for the Aging Adult

This new worldview has many implications for an aging adult. There are currently three major Theories of Aging that describe the behavior of a majority of older people. All of these theories – when placed into action by an aging adult – are flawed, in that they are not compatible with a dynamic systems worldview. So, rather than try to slowly wind down and reduce our activity levels as we get older (Dis-Engagement Theory), attempt to stabilize and maintain mid-life pursuits and identity structures (Continuity Theory), or try to stay active for as long as we can (Activity Theory) – Dynamic Systems Theory teaches us that the optimal way to age in this new reality is to become a “dynamic system” ourselves.

We must learn to merge more completely with our rapidly changing environment, change and adapt along with it, and use this natural change process as a vehicle for personal growth and development, a resource to stave off cognitive decline, and become a source of new energy as we get older. Through this process we will become continuously “self-renewing;” open to the millions of small changes that will emerge spontaneously from a “mindful engagement” with old friends, family, new people, new ideas, new ways of doing things, technology, and our own aging process. To do this we must participate meaningfully and energetically in some purposeful activity involving other people and evolving ideas – usually one that produces a positive emotional affect on ourselves, others, and the world beyond ourselves.

This leads us to the following new aging strategies that go beyond all prior theories of aging – adding onto the traditional aging wisdom concerning exercise, nutrition, mental and social activities, and lifelong learning:

  • Active engagement/interaction with people, things, the environment, learning, life, and Self.
  • Live with a sense of urgency: “on-the-edge” of capabilities, comfort zone, understanding, social norms, etc.
  • Develop an increasingly clear and accurate self-perception, as well as a clear perception of external reality.
  • Become more autonomous, self-motivating, self-learning, flexible, adaptable, and committed to something larger than the self.
  • Develop a full range of emotions and relational qualities.
  • Open ourselves up to a process of continuous change and growth.
  • Adopt a heuristic (experimental, flexible, multiple options, multiple feedback loops, etc.) life strategy and problem-solving methodology.
  • Better manage our own existing levels of energy – while continuously infusing additional new energy into our lives through new experiences, people, ideas, ways of doing things, etc.

Dynamic aging shifts the paradigm of the aging process in Western society from some combination of dis-engagement, continuity, and activity theories – which are largely passive and based on faulty assumptions – to a more proactive, engaged, and systemic means for improving quality of life, offsetting or reversing many of the effects of age-related decline, becoming fluidly adaptable to rapidly changing and unexpected life circumstances, and achieving our unique potential during the last third of life. It is the process by which we can each uniquely move towards what Abraham Maslow termed “self-actualization.” And, it is the process by which an older adult can optimize the additional 15-20 years of healthy life many of us can look forward to – rather than experience a slow decline in quality of life due to inertia, inaction, and misguided beliefs.

Dudley Tower, Ph.D.

Stability is not an option