Positive Aging and Gerotranscendence

“Only when we are so old, only, we are aware of the beauty of life.” Alice Herz Sommer, age 106 A few weeks ago I was in a university library when I happened upon a book quite by accident called Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging by Lars Tornstam, PhD (2005).

I skimmed through it and am amazed and puzzled as to why his theory has not garnered more attention and appreciation.

In the introduction of his book on Gerotranscendence, Dr. Lars Tornstam asks:  “Do you remember when you were 10 years of age and what you, at that time, thought about those who were 20 years of age?...And then (you) grew older and turned 20.  What did you, at age 20, think about yourself as 10, and what about the prospect of turning 50?”

As Tornstam puts it, many of us have a tendency to define the present age or time of life as the best one and how the rest of life/our lives should be.  We can understand that this may not be true in retrospect, but have difficulty doing so in prospect.

He also talks about the perspectives and lenses from which theories of aging have been shared – usually from young adult and middle-aged “desk theoreticians”.  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.

However 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 themselves (ages 52-97), he came up with his theory of gerotranscendence.

The gerotranscendent individual typically experiences a re-definition of the self, of relationships to others and develops a new understanding of fundamental, existential questions.

Some of the elements of gerotranscendence are:

  • becoming less self-occupied and more selective in one’s choice of social and other activities,
  • an increased feeling, attachment and curiousity with past generations,
  • a decreased interest in superficial or unnecessary social interaction,
  • taking care of the body continues without being obsessed about it,
  • a decreased interest in material things and a greater need for “meditation”,
  • positive solitude becomes more important,
  • decrease in right-wrong duality is accompanied by an increased broadmindedness & sense of tolerance,
  • the fear of death disappears and a new understanding of life & death emerges,
  • an increased 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.   Well, how does one become transcendent in general?

Gerotranscendence offers an alternative and complementary theory to existing models of aging - one that highlights growth, interconnectedness, wisdom and understanding that come from decades of life lived.

To read more about gerotranscendence, click here for part two.