Resource Guide for Family Caregivers
Overview to the aging process

Many people do not relish thinking about growing old; the topic isn’t popular in our culture. As a result, many people do not have much knowledge about what normal aging is and what it looks like. Without knowing what normal aging looks like, it can be difficult to recognize either abnormal aging or the health, psychological or social problems experienced by older people that require our attention and care.

The process of aging is:

  • Universal
  • Intrinsic (that is, programmed into our cells)
  • Irreversible
  • Variable1

However, aging is not a disease. It is a slow decline in various domains of living accompanied by certain changes and difficulties.

One important thing to remember about aging is that people age at different rates. Aging is a highly individual process that affects people in unpredictable ways. It's the opposite of infancy and childhood, when there are predictable timetables for physical growth and the development of skills. In old age, we have no uniform ―aging charts,‖ and chronological age can be a poor indicator of how someone feels physically. Because organ systems age at different rates, someone in her 80s may have a very young heart but very old skin. A 65-year old may have old kidneys but strong bones.2

…most organ systems lose roughly one per cent of their functioning each year, starting at age 30.

Another important idea to keep in mind about the aging process is the “One Per Cent Rule.” Although the declines of aging are different and unpredictable, most people do experience them and have to make adjustments as their systems begin to behave less efficiently. The loss of  efficiency comes about as some cells wear out and are not replaced. This process is sometimes referred to as the ―One Per Cent Rule,‖ meaning that most organ systems lose roughly one percent of their functioning each year, starting at about the age of 30. This is illustrated by athletes, who are less able to draw on the full extent of their reserves sometime in their 30s. Many symptoms are not part of normal aging. For this reason, it is important to consider an older person’s health complaints seriously. Because indicators of illness change with age, it's common for an older person to be sick without showing classic symptoms such as fever, pain or nausea. For example, an older person can be having a heart attack without showing dramatic signals. Instead, the person may simply become extremely restless, confused or short of breath (confusion because the brain is getting an inadequate supply of blood), or think they just have heartburn.

Again, don’t ignore signs and symptoms of problems.

1. New York State Office for the Aging (no date). Practical Help for Those Caring fro an Elderly Person in the Community: A Six Session Curriculum for Informal Caregivers. New York: Author.
2 The material in this sub-section has been adapted from: Duncan, S. Family Matters: What is Normal Aging?, via: http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/wwwpb-archives/home/aging.html