Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Transcending Age

Image by new 1Illuminati
"Gerotranscendence" refers to a theory of aging that is loosely related to Eastern mysticism and New Age philosophy.

Gerotranscendence views the proper task of late life as this:

finding life satisfaction in realms beyond material experience.

As with other transcendental aka spiritual theories, a gerotranscendent state does not reside in physical attractiveness, strength, fame, material possessions or political power. Happiness is grounded in accepting the self, others, and the world at large in a way that transcends mortal limitations.

Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam developed this theory in a series of scholarly papers published throughout the 1980s and 1990s and culminating in his book, Gerotranscendence: A Development Theory of Positive Aging. (2005)

Building on the work of Carl Jung and Erik Erikson, Tornstam interviewed older adults themselves, looking for an emerging theory of aging from their perspective.


In the introduction to his book, Tornstam fears that midlife researchers project too much of their own bias towards activity, productivity, and achievement onto older adults and thereby view them as failing when they are merely in a different life stage.

Tornstam suggests, "Instead of accepting the hidden assumption that good aging is the same as continuing the midlife pattern indefinitely, we suggest that growing old has its very own meaning and character" (Gerotranscendence, p. 3).

His theory is quite extensive and deserves close attention. If you are not able to read his book or scholarly articles, here are some key traits of people who achieve gerotranscendence:
  • A more holistic view of time with the past, present and future sometimes merging together. 
  • A rejection of relationships, possessions and activities judged as shallow or superficial. 
  • A keen understanding between the difference between core self and social role. 
  • More living in the moment and increased playfulness.
  • A rejection of absolutes and a greater acceptance of relativism.  
  • A diminished concern for the vanities of the body beyond meeting basic needs. 
  • An enjoyment of solitude and reflection. 
The above points were summarized and synthesized from 1) a leaflet promoted by Tornstam, 2) a blog post by theologian James Woodward, 3) a blog post by life coach Ruth Tamari, and 4) a helpful chart of Tornstam's major points, which I am hazarding a guess was posted by Esther Friede, a Canadian woman living in Northern India.

If you are interested in the history of ideas and would like to read a critique of Tornstam's work, you might find this article of interest. 

I have to confess my awkwardness in writing about gerotranscendence.  I can see that many of my age mates and I favor a view of aging that is productive, active, and achievement oriented.  I usually do project the strength of midlife into late life--specifically, my future late life. I still have a teen and a tween at home. Being an older parent probably encourages my midlife choke-hold on maintaining my core "Self" as productive for as long as possible. 

Currently, I'm in my 50s. After reading about gerotranscendence, I am now interested to see if I end up shedding my view of aging as an act of "doing" and adopting a view of aging as a state of "being."  Check the blog in 30 years and see what I'm doing. Or rather, see "who I am being" by then.

And if I'm not publishing posts when you check back, go to the river and look for me there. 

Photo by nandadeviest. 
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2 comments:

  1. Hi Karen....This is a fascinating post. I've never heard of the term Gerotranscendence and think you/they have really hit on something important. I too am in my 50s and definitely consider myself still in mid-life, but this offers a unique perspective on where we go from here that I think is VERY encouraging and helpful. I've been toying with subjects on my own blog about retirement, aging successfully, women as we age, etc. etc. and I'm finding lots of people who are interested--and yet not quite sure where to go. I remain convinced that aging is more than just getting comfortable--and I think this offers lots of possibility. Again, thanks for sharing it and I'll be checking it out (and probably writing about it myself) as time goes by! ~Kathy

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  2. I have never heard of this term before your post. It's a very interesting subject. My view is that I may grow old in years, but I choose to stay active as long as I am able. Retirement is not in my vocabulary.

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