Positive Aging and Gerotranscendence: Part 2

Image courtesy of Dr Joseph Valks at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Dr Joseph Valks at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Based on the interest in my first blog post on gerotranscendence, I'll be sharing and discussing the research and elements of the theory in this and future posts.

Lars Tornstam’s theory of gerotranscendence came about when he realized that there was a mismatch between theories of aging and the empirical data of aging from aging people themselves. He speculated that researchers and theorists might be projecting midlife values and expectations onto old age, and then define these values and expectations as successful aging.

In his book, Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging (2005), Tornstam suggests that growing into old age has a distinct meaning and character, quite separate from young adulthood or middle age. Inherent in this suggestion is the notion that there is ongoing personal development into old age.  This, he notes, contrasts with much of the gerontological theory where continuity and stability rather than change, growth and development are key concepts.

Tornstam listened to old people themselves and not relying on the ideas and “statements of young and middle-aged desk theoreticians”.

His theory of gerotranscendence evolved from a qualitative study based on 50 interviews of people between the ages of 52-97 (500 people applied).  It was a self-selected group of people who felt attracted by the idea of personal development continuing into old age and recognized such a development in themselves. They were willing to be interviewed about it, and ready to share their experience and thoughts.

The interviews lasted from 1-3 hours, were tape-recorded and transcribed. They were semi-structured – some themes were discussed but the conversations had an open format.  For each theme, interviewer guided the conversation as little as possible.

Tornstam noticed that the gerotranscendent individual typically experiences a re-definition of the self, of relationships with others and a new understanding of fundamental, existential questions.

The development of gerotranscendence in an individual might include these following characteristics: - becoming less self-occupied, self-centered and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities, - experiencing an increased feeling of affinity with past and future generations, - experiencing a decreased interest in “superfluous” social interaction, - experiencing a decrease in interest in material things and a greater need for “meditation”, - finding that positive solitude becomes more important, and - there is also a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, and a redefinition of time, space, life and death.

Image courtesy of healingdream at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of healingdream at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Not everyone will automatically reach a high degree of gerotranscendence.  “It is rather expected to be a process, which, at very best, culminates in a new gerotranscendent perspective.” The very process of living and experiencing hardships, challenges, transitions and losses encourages a forward movement toward gerotranscendence.

Some Obstacles In The Gerotranscendence Process Tornstam refers to psychologist Dr. Robert Peck with regards to the following crises which may occur in the second half of life that can impede moving towards gerotranscendence:

1. Job preoccupation (or ego differentiation): some people are able to reorient their lives in a way such that their identity is no longer dependent on their earlier work role. Other things replace the importance their job had earlier in relation to their self-identity and self-perception.  Others seem unable to let go of their earlier work career.

2. Body preoccupation (or body transcendence): some people become increasingly preoccupied with their bodies after mid-life. They are attuned to every little new ailment.  Others seem to transcend the body in the sense that they know all about their physical condition and take proper care, but are not focused on it.

3. Ego preoccupation (or ego transcendence): in the same way as the body, the ego becomes transcendent in old age.  Peck claims that the awareness of one’s own aging and the inevitability of death can reorganize the ego prompting elders to live in a more generous, unselfish way. This process can induce an acceptance of death.  According to Peck, many people seem unable to reach such a stage.

For the next blog post in this series, I’ll discuss Tornstam’s findings of the social and relationship dimension, the self dimension and the cosmic dimension, as well as obstacles he identified from his research. Stay tuned...