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More people than ever before are living to older adulthood. In the U.S., the average lifespan has risen 30 years since 1900.

Scientists report that the aging of American and Western society is emerging as one of the most important demographic trends of the early 21st century. And today’s older adults are better-educated, healthier, more active and more affluent than any previous generation.

Until now, most studies of mid-life and older adulthood have focused on the physical, psychological and social declines associated with the aging process. However, a new study seeks to examine qualities that improve with age.

“When we think about growing older, we usually focus on the loss of youth and the difficulties that accompany the process of aging. Rarely do we consider the gifts of age — the ways that we are improving and growing as a result of having lived through a lifetime of experience,” says Stephen Small, human development and family relations specialist with Cooperative Extension and professor with the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology.

Small and his colleague, Becky Mather, outreach specialist with the Center for Excellence in Family Studies, are conducting a study that will look at positive development during middle and later adulthood. Known as the SAGE project (Study of Adult Growth and Experience), the study centers on how adults successfully adapt and grow as they progress through adulthood.

“There’s a lot to be learned here. We’re interested in identifying how adults define the strengths that they have acquired with age,” says Small. “In part, we’re looking for models of positive, productive and satisfying aging.“

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Small and Mather hope to identify patterns in how people feel they’ve improved with age. For example, are they clearer about their life’s purpose? Are they more patient? Have their values changed? “We want to find out what people have learned through life experience and how that knowledge has impacted the person they’ve become,” says Small.

The researchers are currently interviewing adults between the ages of 45 and 75 for the SAGE project. “We would like to know more about the changes, the events and decisions that influenced people, and how those things have contributed to a richer life experience,” says Mather.

Individuals will be sent an e-mail explaining the study process and an invitation to participate. The interviews will take about an hour and be conducted by phone or at a location the interviewee chooses.

If you are interested in participating or know someone who has experienced such positive life changes, contact Small  at (608) 263-5688 or sasmall@wisc.edu, or Mather at (608) 219-5201 or rmather@wisc.edu.

To learn more about the Center for Excellence in Family Studies, visit www.sohe.wisc.edu/new/centers/centerfamilystudies.html.

Mary Geissler  is the Chippewa County Family Living Family Living Agent.

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