Sociologist Finds Aging Has Its Own Meaning
By Megan Harshbarger
For those of us who are young and naive, the thought of losing our physical robustness seems like a logical reason for not wanting to grow older. When it comes to appearances, we believe aging is something to actively fight against and there is a billion dollar industry to reinforce that belief.
Regardless, individuals grow older, engage in more responsibilities, raise children, and live through hard times. Through these experiences, life in its most sincere meaning begins to unfold, and what was once important shifts in priority. I believe that the individuals who have reached this point, through being mindful of their journey and learning from their encounters, truly get the most out of the life experience of aging.
The common attitude toward growing older has become one of disdain. From a youth’s perspective, growing older is primarily seen as undesirable due to its aspect of physical decline. As a woman, my response to the aging process is one of acceptance. Is it counterintuitive to feel more uncomfortable about being my youthful self as I get older? It seems as though the older I get, the more I become aware of what I do not know. Perhaps this is what is meant by “wisdom.” I would hate to come across as ungrateful for the youthful stage of my life, but I will certainly admit that I look forward to the psychological stability that I believe increases as one grows older.
There is an interesting theory about the psychological concept of aging, by Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam of Uppsala University. Tornstam asserts that “spiritual development gradually and steadily increases from middle age onward and results in a shift from a materialistic, role-oriented life philosophy to a transcendent, spiritual perspective in late old age."
Tornstam believes that our concepts of successful aging tend to be a continuation of how the Western-cultured, white, middle-aged, middle-class person defines success: the emphasis is on being active, productive, independent, healthy, wealthy and sociable.
According to Tornstam growing old and “into old age has its very own meaning and character, distinct from young adulthood or middle age.” After conducting interviews with elders (ages 52-97), he came up with his theory of “gerotranscendence.”
The gerotranscendent individual typically experiences a redefinition of the self and of relationships to others and a new understanding of fundamental existential questions. Some of the elements of gerotranscendence are:
The individual becomes less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities.
There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction.
The individual might also experience a decrease in interest in material things and a greater need for solitary "meditation." Positive solitude becomes more important.
There is a decrease in right-wrong duality accompanied by an increased broadmindedness and sense of tolerance.
The fear of death disappears and a new understanding of life and death emerges.
There is also often a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, and a redefinition of time, space, life, and death.
So how does one become (a) gerotranscendent? Aging and growing old do not mean that one naturally becomes gerotranscendent although it does arouse existential questions about death, dying and the meaning of our life.
At my age, I cannot offer a pathway to this state of enlightenment. I can only imply that this theory seems to validate my own thoughts on aging - one that highlights growth, interconnectedness, wisdom and understanding that come from decades of life lived.
I have a difficult time relating to those who are in despair of turning thirty. At twenty-six, I still consider myself terribly young and am in full awareness of the fact that I still do not know who I truly am at the core of my being. I observantly look forward to the aging process as I believe it will bring wisdom to my being that will bring me closer to my true self.
Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging by Lars Tornstam, PhD (2005).