Conventional wisdom holds that we become “more” who we are — virtues, vices and all — in old age. Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam, who’s been studying the aging process for over 25 years, has observed a very different phenomenon. “The mistake we make in middle age is thinking that good aging means continuing to be the way we were at 50. Maybe it’s not,” Tornstam told the Paula Span in The New Old Age blog.
Instead he sees many older people who continue to mature socially and psychologically, in ways that may surprise or even dismay. Hallmarks of this process, which Tornstam calls gerotranscendence, include less fear of death and disease, an increased desire for solitude, and diminished commitment to old habits, routines and principles. (There’s a full list in the two-page pamphlet on Dr. Tornstam’s website – link on bottom right corner – which makes very interesting reading.)
If a mom’s wanderlust fades or an uncle quits his bowling league, we’re likely to wring our hands and blame illness or depression. But such transitions may reflect greater self-esteem, more spontaneity, or a need for time to reflect on larger questions: what Tornstam describes in his Theory of Gerotranscendence as “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.” More undergirding for that U-shaped happiness curve I keep encountering.
The withdrawal aspect sounds a lot like the Disengagement Theory that emerged in the 1960s and viewed aging as a natural and beneficial process of pulling away from society. Much criticized, this theory has been supplanted by that of “successful” or “productive” aging, which is characterized by maintaining social relationships and working to maintain physical and cognitive health. I’ve been very much on that bus (search for “successful aging” on this blog), though troubled by the inference that those who chose to age differently (not to mention those without a choice) were perceived as less valuable. I’m making my way towards a viewpoint that can encompass both ends of the spectrum, and I thank Tornstam for shining some light on the path.