"Our Thoughts on Aging" Interview Project: August 2015 Update

The last time I shared an update about this interview project was in December 2013! That’s 20 months ago! Wowsa. Apologies to all of you who have followed along on this journey. Since then so much has changed in my life, changes that have not only moved this interview project forward but pretty much catapulted it way beyond what I could have imagined. But I am speeding ahead so I’ll slow down and share what happened since that December 2013 when I made the decision to conclude the interview project at 30 interviews. Up until that point, I shared these interviews publicly on this blog and then I moved them into a secret space where only I could access them.

I then went on to explore what to do next, what would be most meaningful: for me, for the interviewees, for the world. After brainstorming a myriad of possibilities, I decided to move forward with a book — a beautiful, evocative, moving page-turner on aging and dying and death. You know, the sexy stuff.

In the first half of 2014 my dad experienced a series of health events and crises that took his health into a state of decline. He was hospitalized in late June 2014 and passed away on July 20, 2014. My dad’s death was personally transformative, wisdom-building of the life experience kind. I earned new grey-hairs honestly through these years of care-giving, grieving and transitioning through family loss and changes that rippled out.

Looking back, I realize that it was as though a part of me had stalled on this project, as if an inner part of me knew, knew, that I needed to experience the death of my dad so that I could write and create this from a place of lived understanding.

Interestingly, I had contacted my writing coach, Chris Kay Fraser at Firefly Creative Writing, in the Spring while I was in the midst of it all. Similarly to when my clients decide to hire me, I decided to hire her for accountability, structure, support, to find my way into new insights and realizations, and for what she excels at, inspiration. So now I am writing up my own story and threading it among these others for what I hope will be evocative and compelling reading.

For a variety of what-I-think-are interesting reasons that are will be elaborated in the book, from the original 30 interviews there will now be approximately 17 interviewees in the final version. After reconnecting with each of them for clarity and updates, I am now in the process of transcribing them and shaping them into a story format. I found that reading an interview is one experience and that reading someone’s story is decidedly more fluid and intimate.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a few special treats that will be created out of this project. A couple of the interview questions asked about the positive things about aging and the total count from the interviewees came to over 70! I’m working with a talented graphic designer to create a text image for posters, cards, etc. And each interviewee will receive a gift package for volunteering their time and sharing their personal thoughts — theirs has been a most valuable and meaningful contribution.

Prevent Aging By...

clockYou prevent aging by wearing beautiful make-up. You prevent aging by working hard and being successful. You prevent aging by drinking green smoothies, eating clean and taking supplements. You prevent aging by having a romantic relationship. You prevent aging by looking sexy and wearing sexy clothes. You prevent aging by making money and being financially wealthy. You prevent aging by transforming into a tortoise or koi. You prevent aging by dyeing your grey hairs. You prevent aging by dating someone decades younger than you. You prevent aging by lying about your age. You prevent aging by avoiding the doctor. You prevent aging by running marathons. You prevent aging by filling your skin with fillers. You prevent aging by not drinking, not smoking, not doing drugs. You prevent aging by wearing a mask — party, masquerade, Halloween or facial. You prevent aging by working out and lifting weights. You prevent aging by being productive and living a fulfilling life. You prevent aging by living to 120. You prevent aging by doing yoga and meditating. You prevent aging by watching your cholesterol. You prevent aging by falling in love. You prevent aging by having faith. You prevent aging by living in a Blue Zone. You prevent aging by applying anti-aging moisturizer and serum. You prevent aging by photoshopping your pictures. You prevent aging by weighing the same as you did in high school. You prevent aging by not laughing - no laugh lines. You prevent aging by not talking about it, especially with your loved ones. You prevent aging by keeping your brain stimulated with lectures, games and puzzles. You prevent aging by not looking at yourself in a mirror. You prevent aging by having lots of sex, or lovers. You prevent aging by being youthful and vibrant.

Except you can’t...prevent aging.

Positive Aging and Gerotranscendence: Part 2

Image courtesy of Dr Joseph Valks at
Image courtesy of Dr Joseph Valks at

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
Image courtesy of healingdream at

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...

Fifty Shades of Grey...Hair

When I first heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, I thought it was about hair. Fifty shades of grey hair. Fifty shades of grey hair as we transition from being a young adult to an elder. A shade for every year. I wonder what a shade of grey looks like? What do 6 shades look like? What about 19? 31? 46?

In the past few years the topic of grey hair is often woven into conversations with girlfriends as we notice our many shades of grey growing in. We talk about noticing women who have grey hair, grey hair we admire, the elements of grey hair we admire, and how many middle-aged and older women don’t show their grey hair. Actually it seems like a lot of middle-aged and older women hide their grey hair. That’s including me.

As we talked about this transition towards grey hair we realized that it’s not talked about; it’s a hidden topic like the grey hair itself, like menopause used to be. As if middle-aged women don’t have grey hair, aren’t greying, aren’t growing older. Acts of concealing and revealing age(ing).

I remember my first grey hair. It was a milestone, a moment that marked the beginning of aging for me in a very real way. It was sometime around my 30th birthday, far away from becoming an elder but a biological step towards it. I dealt with it by yanking it out. Then it was two and then it was too many to count. A few years ago I decided to cover it with dye. Covering and concealing the in-between stage with dye. Dyeing the middle years until I’m an elder, and even then.  Encouraging me to dye until I die.

Is covering our grey hairs a symbolic act, a psychological way to slow down or stop our life stage transition from youth to middle-age, or middle-age to elder?

Hair product companies and advertisers hire models and celebrities to encourage dyeing, covering, and concealing grey hair. Concealing our grey hair is more than just hair though, isn’t it really about concealing our age and concealing our authentic selves?

What messages do these hair product companies and advertisers send? That if we have grey hair, we won’t look sexy, be sexy, feel sexy, be attractive, feel attractive, be admired, be beautiful, be sexual, be happy, be successful, etc. Isn’t this ageism?

Actually it’s a very personal question: What makes you feel attractive, beautiful, desirable and sexual, without any outside influence(rs)?

Turns out that fifty shades of grey hair is also about sex and challenging the myths of sexuality as we age.

I’ve been looking around for middle aged women who are authentic, open and transparent about their age and aging, allowing their grey hair to show. It takes courage to be authentic and transparent about oneself at any age, and especially if there are potential career, financial, or relationship consequences.

Here is my wish list for those of us who have or will have grey hair:

I wish hair and beauty product companies would create shampoos and conditioners that help us nourish and care for our beautiful grey hair.

I wish hair salons would offer more options for classy, funky and stunning haircuts for women with grey hair.

I wish hair product companies and hair salons would help us reveal our grey hair instead of conceal it, especially as it grows in.

I wish hair stylists, hair colour technicians, and make-up artists would be comfortable revealing their own grey hair.

I wish hair-care and beauty industry would spend money and research helping us age healthfully and positively with our grey hair.