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Transitions in Aging

Aging with Developmental Disabilities

Successful Aging

Rowe and Kahn (1997) define successful aging as:

  • Absence of disease and disability
  • Maintenance of high physical and cognitive capacities
  • Continued active engagement in life

Janicki (1994) defines successful aging for individuals with disabilities as:

  • Remaining independent as long as possible
  • Remaining out of institutions
  • Maintaining autonomy
  • Continuing to engage in desired activities

NEXT: Aging Process

Notes and References

Now, we are all clear on the importance of developing a comprehensive age profile when working with aging individuals with developmental disabilities. How can we assist them in aging successfully?

First, let's review the definition of successful aging. Rowe and Kahn (1987) proposed to distinguish between normal and successful aging based on the absence of any pathological conditions.1 In 1997, they further defined successful aging as the composition of the three components: low risks of disease and disability, high physical and cognitive capacities, and active engagement in life. This definition has been adopted by many gerontologists in the effort to promote the importance of not only staying healthy, but also continuing to be engaged in meaningful social relationships and productive activities. However, this definition failed to recognize that individuals who age with a life-long disability can also thrive in their life. Scholars have criticized this definition for its narrow focus on the medical model and have expressed concern that this definition may further marginalize individuals who age with developmental disabilities.2

We therefore recommend the definition proposed by Janicki in 1994. He suggested the use of four criteria when considering the idea of "aging well" for people who have a disability: (1) to live independently as long as possible, (2) to remain out of institutions, (3) to maintain autonomy in decisions, and (4) to continue to engage in meaningful activities.3 His definition supports self-determination, allows older adults with developmental disabilities to carry forward their preferences and habits from mid-adulthood to their older adulthood, and, most importantly, promotes community living and participation.


  1. Rowe, J. W., & Kahn, R. L. (1997). Successful aging. The Gerontologist, 37(4), 433-440.
  2. Minkler, M., & Fadem, P. (2002). "Successful aging:": A disability perspective. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 12(4), 229-235.
  3. Janicki, M. P. (1994). Policies and supports for older adults with mental retardation. In M. M. Seltzer, M. W. Krauss & M. P. Janicki (Eds.), Life course perspectives on adulthood and old age. Washington, DC: American Association on Mental Retardation.