Have you ever wondered how you will like to age and have you ever imagined or even remotely thought about how you would like to die? I know these are not easy questions to answer but nevertheless are thought provoking because one day we will all be old and will be nearing death. When I look at my parents, I wonder what they think about their aging process and what lessons I can learn from them. Especially at a time when cosmetic surgery, Botox and wrinkle reducing creams and the like seem to be the norm, these questions become even more important.
Aging is a personal experience, and we can learn a lot by spending time with people who are near to the end of human life span. Conversations around sharing your own experiences and understanding the perspective of an older aging person can provide much perspective and insight. Conscious aging means to ‘move on’ and confronting your own death. There are several myths around aging for instance; most think that retirement has a negative connotation associated with it. The popular belief is that retirement leads to identity crisis and that older adults have little contact with the younger generation. You will be surprised to know that research suggests that younger people are more lonely than older people and according to the theory of Gerotranscendence (The term Gerotranscendence comes from the words “gero” (“old age” in Greek) and “transcendence” (“to climb over” in Latin) ) by Lars Tornstam, a researcher in this area, Gerotranscendence is a developmental stage that occurs when an individual who is living into very old age shifts their 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.”
Isn’t that just fascinating! To know that old age can have such profound meaning is so gratifying. Being raised as a Hindu, I am aware that the religious scriptures define fifty-two life stages and out of these, ten are the most important. These stages are called Samskaras. Some of the most commonly known Samskaras are that of childhood, of boyhood, of manhood and of old age and death. Similar to the Tornstom theory of Gerotranscendence, in the two last stages of life as described in Hindu scriptures (namely Vanaprastha and Sannyasa), a person withdraws himself from all worldly activities, retires in the forest and prepares himself for taking Sannyasa. As a Sannyasin, he or she renounces the world and leads a life of study and meditation. It’s interesting to see such similarity between recent western research and eastern view of purpose or path of life for an aging person. We become more and more like the Zen Buddhist as we age.
Tornstom conducted qualitative interviews of 50 participants between the ages of 52 and 97 years and identified three dimensions of change – The Cosmic Dimension, The Self Dimension and The Dimension of Social and Personal Relations. According to the cosmic dimension of Gerotranscendence , a person transcends borders between the past and present and sometimes interprets his/her childhood in a new reconciling way. An elder may report that they experience feelings of being a child, a young person, an adult, and an older adult all in one moment. This view of time allows them to re-evaluate old events to gain new perspectives and provides opportunities to right old wrongs. They begin to view death as a natural part of the life process; they appear to fear death less than those who are younger.
The dimension of self relates to self confrontation and through self discovery, one finds hidden aspects of their self – both the good and the bad. During this time, one may find removing the self from the center of one’s universe on one hand and on the other, if there is a lack of self confidence, a struggle to establish self-confidence that feels appropriate may happen. The care of the body continues, but the obsession with it surely ends. These elders become less self-occupied and a shift occurs from egoism to altruism. Gerotranscendent elders remove their “masks” because they no longer feel the need to play their old roles; they can now be themselves. These individuals find themselves simply accepting the mysteries of life, acknowledging they can’t understand everything. When Gerotranscendent older adults reflect back on their lives, they realize that the pieces of their life’s jigsaw puzzle really do form wholeness.
According to the dimension of social and personal relationships, the meaning and the importance of relationship changes. These elders become more selective and less interested in superficial relationships and find an increasing need for periods of solitude. As they age, they often become more selective in their choices of social and other activities; they avoid social interactions they judge to be unnecessary. Gerotranscendent seniors report a decreased interest in material things, viewing too many possessions as burdensome. They express a greater need for “alone time” for thought and meditation, referred to as positive solitude. They also have an urge to abandon rules, while also understanding their necessity at times. They have ‘everyday wisdom’ meaning they show reluctance to superficially separating the right from the wrong and thus holding judgments and giving advice. They have an increased tolerance and broadmindedness.
I hope this blog helps you to understanding the aging process and how to age consciously. This may also help you to relate to what your older family members may be going through and will assist you to understand that process better.
Sometimes we don’t know where we are heading in our life. We are not sure of what we want from our life. And that becomes a major reason for stress in our lives. Integrative approach towards Health and Wellness can help you to focus on what makes life meaningful for you and how is it that you can bring about changes from this very day to experience contentment when you leave your body and this earth.