Research into human longevity has been misled in large part by its heavy reliance on a core of unstated but deeply held beliefs that color old age with every negative connotation available. The assumptions inherent in these beliefs, while not wholly false, ignore important dimensions of aging…Growing old is actually a complex, richly detailed phenomenon…Declinism, a concept that has been used to describe the experience of empires that are past their prime, can also be employed to describe the contemporary equation of aging with loss and surrender. – William H. Thomas, M. D. in What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save The World.
Doctor William H. Thomas is a famous geriatrician, with an international reputation in his field. In the early 1990’s, he began working in support of the “Eden Alternative.” He wrote books advocating a different type of physical environment for nursing homes and care of the elderly. Facility concepts growing out of the ideas of Dr. Thomas and others are called “Green Houses.” “Most of all,” Dr. Thomas has written, “the Green House represents a new pattern language for addressing the social and cultural challenges that arise from growing old in a viciously ageist society.”
Today’s column will take a look at another book by Dr. Thomas, “What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World.” This fascinating book begins by looking at some well-known studies regarding the aging process. Dr. Thomas writes “research into human longevity has been mis-led in large part by its heavy reliance on a core of unstated but deeply held beliefs that color old age with every negative connotation available. The assumptions inherent in these beliefs, while not wholly false, ignore important dimensions of aging. ..growing old is actually a complex, richly detailed phenomenon.” Dr. Thomas explains how our society (and perhaps all societies before us?) is so incredibly biased in favor of youth, that almost no one can take comfort in the idea of growing older. We view an older person as an “adult in decline.” That view is not only incorrect, but it is based on our insistence on measuring old age with the yardsticks of early adulthood and our faith in youth’s perfection. Truth is, writes Dr. Thomas that old age is different from adulthood, just as adulthood is different from childhood. Old age is not synonymous with “decline.”
A Swedish sociologist, Lars Tornstam, completed some studies in 1973, showing results he named “theory of gerotranscendence.” This model points out that human longevity includes the potential for a movement away from the materialistic and rational points of view common in the first half of life, and that the successful gerotranscendence, or completion, of this shift is accompanied by a strong increase in life satisfaction. He interviewed Swedish men and women aged fifty-two to nine-seven years. Answers given reflect change in the subject’s relationships with self, society and the world. In his analysis, Tornstam groups these experiences into three categories. The Self: Self-confrontation occurs during aging, and there is a decrease in self-centeredness. There is a change from egoism to altruism. There is a rediscovery of childhood and the pleasure of recalling episodes from one’s own childhood. Relationships: Older people become more selective and less interested in superficial relationships. There is an increased need for solitude. Attitudes toward wealth change – there is less acquisitiveness and a greater awareness that possessions can ensnare and confine a person. There is newfound joy in transcending nonsensical social norms. (“When I get old, I Will Wear Purple.”) A deeper appreciation develops for the large gray area separating right and wrong. This is accompanied by increasing reluctance to give advice to others. Cosmic Insights: Past and present sometimes merge, and the immediate presence of long-absent relatives may be sensed. There is often a renewed interest in genealogy and one’s relationships with past generations. The fear of death may give way to a curiosity about “what’s next?” There is a renewed interest in nature, and our sense of connection to it.
Tornstam’s theory is intended to suggest a general pattern of development that can unfold in the later decades of life. Older people of the same age show much more diversity than children – and it is much harder to make general statements about them. This variability, writes Thomas, is among the gifts that longevity offers to us.
In this fascinating book, Thomas discusses that we need to be open to the hidden powers of age. The transcendence discussed by Tornstam may, as many world religions can attest, be the greatest of all possible human victories. There is something “vital and true” to be grasped and then savored within the distinctively human experience of growing older. “There is great power hidden within old age, but we will remain ignorant of the depth and breadth of that power as long as we insist on simply comparing youth to age.” More on this topic to come. Stay tuned.
“What are Old People For?” is available through Amazon.com and major bookstores. I highly recommend it, and I have only finished the first half! For more information on current Eden Alternative projects, go to www.edenalt.com.
Thank you for reading. Stay well. See you next week.