Gerotranscendence in the last third of life

Opinion: Columns

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By Marc Blesoff

CONSCIOUS AGING

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 

As I've written before, 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, and not just for appearance's sake. Wouldn't we all really prefer to be the person whom people want to visit versus feeling 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 30 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 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 notes 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 whom 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.

Marc Blesoff is a former Oak Park village trustee, co-founder of the Windmills softball organization, co-creator of Sunday Night Dinner, a retired criminal defense attorney, and a novice beekeeper. He currently facilitates Conscious Aging Workshops and Wise Aging Workshops in the Chicago area.

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