do we become more ourselves in late life — or not necessarily so?

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.  

One thought on “do we become more ourselves in late life — or not necessarily so?

  1. Ashton,
    Thanks for your thoughts on Dr. Tornstam’s work. I too am of the mindset that successful aging means staying engaged.

    Having worked in homecare in NYC throughout the ’90’s, I encountered too many people who had withdrawn from the world and became afraid of going outside. Were they agoraphobic? This withdrawal into solitude all too often meant becoming socially isolated, and it was often accompanied by mental illness — agoraphobia, depression and paranoia being the top three. All of this while health problems mounted. Often, I and the health care team were their primary, or only, human contact.

    My hunch was that many people had begun disengaging from the world years earlier — in their 30’s or 40’s — and it wasn’t a pretty picture. I observed that those who stayed interested in others, who had social contacts outside of the family and who stayed active to the best of their ability seemed to fare the best. And, they were the standouts within this home care context.

    One was an 86-year old retired social worker, widowed, who was a painter.  She had a 94-year old boyfriend, who wanted to live with her; she didn’t want that. They had lunch together every afternoon. She went to the New School every week for painting classes.

    Another was a retired Martha Graham dancer, who lived in the East Village. Her husband had died the year before and she was struggling emotionally. Her health had taken a dive after his death. She was having a hard time even walking around her home safely. Still, she had former students who stopped by regularly to visit and help her out. She wanted to know all about my romantic life. Come to think of it, she gave me good advice, which I didn’t listen to, of course. She was engaged.

    Another was a widow, who lived alone in a Mitchell-Lama building off of 1st Avenue. Once she was able to return to going back out to the park to visit her friends, she was a different person. She smiled more, talked more and was eager to get out to visit her friends. She also complained that her 40-year old son, who faithfully called her or visited her every week, wasn’t doing enough for her. That’s another story.

    Thanks for posting.

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