This presentation was given at a recent dinner hosted by the Center for Elder Independence and the Fund for Elder’s Independence.
This video, from Nader’s recent eldership presentation at CEI, is about changing our perception of aging, reframing the conversation from about getting old to getting mature and opening ourselves up to the concept of Elder as a role and engaging in Eldership practices. Elders of any age can practice the Eldership values of giving back, mentorship and providing guidance to their communities. Find out more about this presentation and video >>
Changing the Face of Aging
Using the youthful body as a measurement stick against which we judge our well-being at different ages is based on an overly simplistic understanding of the human being. This standard is predicated on the belief that biological strength, speed, and performance in terms of actual biologically measurable numbers – muscle mass, blood values, bone density, calcium levels, and the like – are superior over other aspects of being human, actually determines our humanity. This myopic, bio-centered viewpoint ignores, as stated before, the deeper dimensions of being human. Our ability to make choices, to fight for causes, to stand-up for beliefs, to be altruistic, generous, kind, and loving such a simplistic view does not consider. For example, is not our ability to discern the value about what presents itself before us at least as important as our ability to take in the particulars with our senses? This issue parallels the debate about our information age where we begin to question the value of information. If it remains data, we simply cannot process, cannot understand, and cannot act upon it.
A biological view of the older adult that measures itself against a youthful body also dominates our attitude towards eldercare. As such we enter a “declinist” view of the human lifespan: the older we get, the more we decline. We emphasize losses and have no vocabulary and concepts to speak of the gains we experience as we age. This is why we are in need of an existential-humanistic, process-oriented approach to eldercare. Such an approach will introduce concepts such as meaning, purpose, mystery, maturity, wisdom, creativity and beauty. Being guided by these concepts, we will begin seeing more completely, will notice when these so very important aspects of human life are present or absent.
Shifting Values: Aging, Elders, and the Long View of Life
Throughout the millennia, we humans have been asking ourselves what makes life worth living. How can we know a life that completes us and achieves what we want to become? Wise elders, mystics, sages, seers, scholars: all have been sought to answer this question. In the last century, with increased secularization and the rise of the modern scientific attitude, the discipline of psychotherapy emerged as a new way to explore the worthwhile life.
With what has been termed “the talking cure”, psychotherapy tries to bring awareness to our individual self and whether we are living in accordance with it. As individuals, we develop within a culture and social setting that overlie our unique self. More often than not, we remain unaware of this overlay until we begin the arduous journey, whether with the help of a psychotherapist or someone else, of differentiating between who we are and who culture and society expect us to be. This dialectic between our authentic self—if there is such a thing—and the self-dictated by social and cultural norms constitutes a lifelong labor of differentiation and choice making.
My conceptual understanding of this dialectic took on a new dimension and greater depth when I entered the world of elders living in community. I did not make a conscious choice to enter this world, yet it turned my perspective around. I began to look at life backwards.
The World of Elders
I have had the good fortune to be with and work with elders for over twenty years. Having just completed my doctorate in the humanities and literature at Stanford, I was filled with ideals about human nature and driven by a zest to make a difference in the world, however and wherever that might be. Now in my mid-thirties, I entered the world of eldercare by what seemed like pure happenstance. I was not prepared for how my daily contact with elders and their many expressions and ways of being would make such a difference in me as a person.
I had always held elders in high esteem. My German grandparents helped raise me at their farm in northern Germany. Grandpa would have me sit on his lap while he told me stories; he would take me early mornings to milk the cows, feed the pigs, collect potatoes, or walk the fields to assess the ripeness of wheat and corn. I became his assistant and apprentice, so I felt, and I was proud to learn from this kind, strong man. Grandma was equally beloved. She would greet Grandpa and me with a big smile, and second breakfast, lunch, snack, or dinner was always ready. Every Sunday morning, despite my protests, she would slip me a few coins of pocket money.
When I first walked into my friend’s small eldercare home close to Ocean Beach in San Francisco, I was greeted by the many friendly smiles of the elders resident there. The faces looked as familiar as those of my grandparents. Nevertheless, being familiar with elders and feeling comfortable with them was only a minor if an important part of my journey into the world of elders. It would take another two decades before I came to know how profoundly elders had influenced my perception of the world and of myself; that is, how they had changed me.
The depth of this impact dawned on me while working with my therapist on the pressures of relationships and the daily demands of business. She noticed that whenever I discussed my so-called adult life I became increasingly tense, but when I talked about my contact and experiences with elders I lightened up and my body relaxed. I got curious about the difference between my adult self and this self that emerged in the company of elders. I wanted to know about the qualities connected to my mainstream adult life, intent on earning a living, and contrast those with the qualities that surfaced when I was in the company of elders.
How does such a comparison enter a discussion of psychotherapy and why does it deserve a prominent place in deepening our understanding of the practice of psychotherapy? Two reasons come to mind.
First, more and more, our clients will be adults over sixty who come with different mindsets and expectations from those of “younger” adults from twenty to fifty. Life expectancy in the Western world has nearly doubled in the last hundred years; a new cohort of mature elders will wield increased educational and economic power, and they will be psychologically astute. It makes a difference if your life horizon is fifty years, as it was at the end of the nineteenth century, versus a hundred years, as the newly born cohort today is estimated to live.
Second, as therapists we are continually evolving in our understanding and perceptions of life. In the current state of our thinking and approach to psychotherapy, we are beginning to rethink aging and to re-envision our latter years. Our new understanding influences how we view adult life, and life as a whole.
A New View: Adult Life Seen from the Perspective of Elderhood
As many a philosopher and sage have pointed out, what is nearest is often the hardest to see. Particularly in our so-called adult life, it is seldom a simple matter to take a step back and evaluate how we are living. How often do we reflect on whether our ways of living are really our choice or are instead heaped on us by external influences, ranging between mainstream values, education, family, social, and cultural norms? Do these resonate with our own inner inklings and desires? Are we simply following the herd?
These questions make sense when we can see available alternatives. Moreover, new alternatives seem to be emerging. As our society ages demographically, we begin to re-evaluate the arc of life from the point of view of the mature elder. Many life philosophies and thought traditions are available to us. In a sense, we start taking a rear view perspective of our lives, looking at the values we have followed as adults mirrored by those who have long life experience.
Given our interconnected world, our so-called pursuit of happiness has consequences beyond the personal sphere. Our actions and behaviors affect other people, our surroundings, and our global environment. The mainstream adult values of incessant achievement, of material over psychological and spiritual growth, of progress for the sake of progress, of looking out for number one, of valuing speed over slowness, of preferencing image over substance: all of these behaviors and goals run counter to a sustainable planet.
Elder values, in contrast—with their emphasis on personal encounter, on slowing down, on being rather than doing, on paying attention to our authentic selves, on inner rather than outer growth—have less detrimental impact on people and planet than adult values do. We need to attend to elder values if we are to live in a sustainable society and world, if we want to nurture a kinder people, a healthier and more livable planet.
We cannot continue to develop and use earth’s resources without limit. We cannot continue to ignore the wellbeing of the world’s population while focusing on our individual wellbeing. Through our interconnectedness, we are more and more influenced by those who are not as privileged as we are, who do not enjoy sufficient access to resources. We cannot pretend that their suffering does not affect us.
Learning from Our Wisdomkeepers
Though a familiar concept, wisdom is not talked about much within our societies. We are prone to speak more in terms of knowledge and information rather than wisdom. Wisdom may be understood as good judgment based on accumulated learning, a learning that requires time and maturation. The latter is often only possible after a long life filled with trials and experiences.
Traditionally, the term elder described a person who possessed wisdom through having struggled with the conundrums each life invariably brings. Continued learning and deepening awareness were the fruits of such struggle. Elders were said to practice eldership, a role that offered wise counsel and judgment to whoever sought it.
Today’s societies have suppressed this role, a loss that is evident through an emphasis on youth, an anti-aging philosophy, and a stress on technical, specialized knowledge rather than wisdom. Much research in the last few decades shows that emotional maturation continues during the aging process, as does a deepening of our awareness or wisdom. We now see life as a long progression, a growth that continues all the way until our passing.
The Purpose of Aging and Old Age
Humans are meaning-making beings. We need purpose to feel fulfilled. What is our purpose when we get older, old, and very old? How do we make sense of our accrued years within societies that have done away with the role of elders and forgotten about eldership? Clearly, the world needs elders and the values they bring to the fore. Even a cursory view of the world today and the many issues needing to be tackled shows that people and planet are not well served by our dominant adult values. Elder values can augment these adult values with a more sustainable approach to these challenges. For this to happen our aged population, our elders, need to start valuing themselves, to appreciate what their life journey has endowed them with.
We are in a unique position to help elders take such a long view of life, where aging is valued as a maturation and deepening process. It is the very process of aging that allows a person to ripen into full humanity, to develop into the elder who is able to guide and mentor the next generation. In this way, elders are to be understood as stewards of society and the planet—as has traditionally been their role. Would we not rather have the most experienced and wise leaders guiding us, especially during troubled times?
The Road Ahead
If we intend to restore the role of eldership in our societies, then much psychological work lies ahead. Notably, we will need to address an ageism that many younger, but especially older, adults have internalized. Many decades of messages about the undesirability, even disease, of aging must be addressed and countered. Many of our elders have retreated into adults-only communities, hiding in their homes or, if they can afford it, at elder vacation spots. Furthermore, the script for retirement in which the elder ceases engagement in productive work has to be rewritten. Civil involvement by our wiser, more mature citizens is needed now more than ever. We may regard the last phase of life as perhaps the most important, as the peak of the human crescendo, when a long life of experience and learning may find a most singular focus and purpose – for both, ourselves and others.
A complete version of this article by Nader R. Shabahangi can be found in:Psychotherapy in Parenthood and Beyond, Bruce Kirkaldy (ed.), Edizioni Minerva Medica, 2016.