‘Gerotranscendence’ makes aging a positive again

“Getting old is like climbing a mountain; you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better!”

Ingrid Bergman

“Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.”

David Bowie

The last third of life gives us the opportunity to get closer to being the person we’d like to be. Implicit in this is that we actually think about who we’d like to BE, not what we’d like to be DOING, not just for appearances sake. Wouldn’t we all really prefer to be the person who people want to visit versus feel they should visit?

This can apply to anyone at any age, but it is a topic that resonates with those of us living the last third of life. The theory of gerotranscendence speaks to why this is.

In the words of its founder, Swedish sociologist/gerontologist Dr. Lars Tornstam, “Gerotranscendence implies a shift in meta-perspective, from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction.”

Some 40 years ago, Tornstam was puzzled by emerging empirical data that conflicted with mainstream gerontological theories holding that ‘retirement’ is traumatic and that ‘old people’ are lonely, theories he calls the “Misery Perspective.” He noticed that when it comes to subjective health and well-being, “retirement seems to serve as a kind of rejuvenating cure. On average, retirement makes people feel healthier and better than they did prior to retirement.”

Tornstam noticed that, across the board, older people experienced “a kind of redefinition of time, space, life and death, and an increased need for positive contemplative solitude” which seemed unrelated to people’s presumed fears of mortality.

The Misery Perspective pathologizes aging, gerotranscendence embraces it.

If we believe that life peaks in middle age and it’s all downhill after that, then that’s what we get. As Jung stated, believing that it is only during the first half of life that we develop and mature ends up in our dying as only half-matured individuals.

Our consciousness can affect our level of gerotranscendence. Tornstam’s rough estimate is that “only 20 percent of the population automatically reaches high degrees of gerotranscendence without trouble”. He states that one of the reasons the process is slowed down or blocked is the expectation many of us hold “that aging should involve a continuation of the same values, interests and activities as in midlife.”

This is an example of internalized ageism.

Do you believe our last third of life should be a continuation of the same values, interests and activities as in midlife? Do you think our consciousness can affect our level of gerotranscendence? Have these types of questions changed in importance as you have aged?

Do you prefer to be the older who people want to visit versus the one people feel they should visit?

Do you ever talk with your friends and/or family and/or partner about these questions? If not, would you like to?

I’m learning that conscious aging has a swimming-upstream quality until one does it.

 

 

 

About Marc Blesoff
After thirty plus years as a criminal defense attorney, Marc has been facilitating Wise Aging and Conscious Aging Workshops, appreciating the beauty of relationships and learning “that the line I called the horizon does not exist and sky and water, so long apart, are the same state of being.” He attended Bowdoin College, The Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, and Northwestern University. He is married forty years, and has three children and one grandchild.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting article. However, talk of “retirement” set off red flags for me.
    “Retirement”, financially speaking, is not available to me and to many of my friends who are 50 and older. It likely was never available to many people of color who lacked equal access to quality education and/or decent employment after high school/college.
    I appreciate this Swedish outlook but would also argue that it’s informed by living in a highly educated, ethnically homogenous culture in a small country, one somewhat isolated by geography, climate and language.
    I can’t see this line of reasoning being as easily applied in a messy, multi-ethnic/multi-cultural place like the US. Here’s we will have a veritable sea of elders with no one to help them, no one to value their hard-won wisdom, and no one to respect them when they grow “too” old and infirm to be seen as anything but a “burden”.
    Given no other options, I suppose I’ll have to be one loud, hell-raising, class-warrior burden when I get old.

    • Bluegear, I just saw your comment. THANK YOU! THANK YOU! You raise one of the most important points in our entire unfolding aging activism. The issues of accessibility and affordability are key, and we need to be talking about real life aging by real people – not just the ‘beautiful’ people. The word ‘retirement’ rubbed me the wrong way as it did you, but then I thought about when and where Tornstam was writing, so I could at least put it into context. The important thing for me is that he is trying to see ALL older people as precious human beings, not worn out machines or invisible annoyances. We need that here and now. How his ideas get applied to our “messy, multi-ethnic/multi-cultural” US of today (nicely put by you) is precisely what we should be grappling with. Otherwise, we are not relevant. I’m not willing to write off his theory so quickly – that might just lead to writing off our “messy” and beautiful aging population. Thank you again.

  2. You’re welcome. And thanks for your reply. Question is: since North American Jewish communal life is already shutting out younger Jews without means (I know, that’s a whole other discussion), what does the futurethat sense of belonging hold for aging Jews’ access to the sense of belonging and community that Jewish life holds out as its promise?
    I live geographically far from the Jewish institutions that serve our elders, and I know that when I get old I won’t end up there anyway because the cost is simply too high. I am making plans and communal connections with non-Jews that I live near and do activism with, because I have already recognized that I’m not ever going to be one of the “beautiful” Jewish elders. But for those of my late-Boomer cohort who haven’t thought far ahead, the class divide within our Jewish communities will come as something of a jolt. And I don’t believe our communal organizations are even remotely ready for the wave of Baby Boomers who will wake up and howl in anger when they find they have no access — to support systems, to care networks, to multi-generational community or a sense of extended “family” within Jewish contexts.
    We worry about losing our Jewish young to non-Jewish influences.
    But I think we must also look at the other end of the continuum and recognize that a Jewish community founded on capitalist ideals will also cause us to lose our elders — and the wisdom and vision they come with.

  3. Ageism shares a lot with all the other ‘isms’ (able-ism, homophobia, class-ism, racism, sexism, etc), but one difference is that we all age and die. This offers us insight into what we share, our interconnectedness. Largely because of longevity (and demographics – boomers/millenials) our culture has entered a phase never seen before, and we are all behind the curve – individuals, institutions, governments – ALL of us. Just doing ‘more of the same’ will not cut it. I like your comment about “the wave of Baby Boomers who will wake up and howl in anger…”.
    My friend Ashton recently wrote to me “The main question on my mind now is how do we build a movement that leaves no one behind. All I know is that you can’t retrofit inclusion and that it means a lot of awkward conversations reaching across conventional divides.” This certainly applies within our Jewish communities. We cannot afford to, as you put it, “lose our elders — and the wisdom and vision they come with.” We live in a time analogous to when most people believed the earth was flat, but a few understood it was a sphere. They were thought leaders, but they still believed the sun orbited the earth.

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