Growing Older With a Physical Disability: A Special Application of the Successful Aging Paradigm

TitleGrowing Older With a Physical Disability: A Special Application of the Successful Aging Paradigm
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsMolton IR, Yorkston KM
JournalJ Gerontology Series B
Start Page290


In the United States, the average age of people living with early-acquired physical disabilities is increasing. This cohort is said to be aging with disability and represents a unique population among older adults. Given recent policy efforts designed to merge aging and disability services, it is critical that models of "successful aging" include and are relevant to this population. However, many current definitions of successful aging emphasize avoidance of disability and high levels of physical function as necessary to well-being.


In 9 focus groups, we examined perspectives of "successful aging" in 49 middle-aged and older individuals living with spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, or postpolio syndrome. Transcripts were analyzed using a structured qualitative coding approach and Dedoose indexing software.


Participants ranged in age from 45 to 80 years (M = 62) and had lived with their disability diagnosis for an average of 21 years. Analysis revealed 4 primary themes of successful aging: resilience/adaptation, autonomy, social connectedness, and physical health (including access to general and specialty healthcare).


Results highlight the need for a nuanced application of the "successful aging" paradigm in this population.
Full Text

What was this research about?

Understanding successful aging is important to help policymakers and clinicians develop the best services for older adults. Avoiding disability had been a hallmark of successful aging. However, a growing number of people are aging with disabilities they were born with, such as cerebral palsy, or that they acquired as young adults, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or spinal cord injury (SCI). It is important to understand what successful aging means to these individuals. In this study, we asked middle-aged and older adults with physical disabilities to tell us what they think is important for successful aging.

What did the researchers do?

We held nine focus groups with adults who had either muscular dystrophy (MD), MS, post-polio syndrome (PPS), or SCI. The participants were at least 45 years old and had lived with their disability condition for an average of 21 years. We asked them to describe what successful aging means to them and what resources help them to age well. We transcribed the focus group conversations and reviewed them to find the most common themes that came up.

What did the researchers find?

Our participants mentioned four major themes about how to age well:


  1. Adaptation and resilience: Adjusting to life changes, enjoying life’s pleasures, and keeping their mood up in spite of setbacks.
  2. Autonomy: Being able to make choices and take charge of their lives, including having a voice in the adaptations or assistance they used.
  3. Social connectedness: having strong connections to family members, spouses, and friends, including other people with the same disability.
  4. Physical health: managing symptoms such as pain and fatigue, and having good access to medical care from knowledgeable physicians.

How can you use this research?

Our results suggest that people can age successfully while living with a disability. Policies that support people with disabilities to achieve adaptation, autonomy, social connectedness, and access to high-quality healthcare are crucial for successfully aging with disability. Policy priorities should include:


  • Rehabilitation services that give people with disabilities the tools to adapt physically and emotionally as they age;
  • Programs that support people with disabilities to “age in place,” within their own communities, and choose their own caregivers;
  • Social and recreational programs, including support groups to help people connect with others with similar disabilities; and
  • Healthcare services that are fully accessible to people with disabilities, including offices that are physically accessible and health care providers who are educated about specific disability conditions.

Things you should know:


  • People can age well with disabilities if they have the right supports.
  • For more information about aging well with a disability, check out our Factsheets.

Original research article:

Molton IR, Yorkston KM. Growing older with a physical disability: A special application of the successful aging paradigm. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2016; Oct 4.