Late life development is riddled with paradox: We grow more comfortable with who we are (Authenticity) and at the same time become less concerned with ourselves (Self-Transcending Generosity). We are generally kinder and more understanding of others (Contentment and...
Attitudes have been shown to have a profound effect on our lives, and two are essential for late life well-being: healthy defiance and optimism. Working free of the pervasive but mistaken idea that aging is an inevitable slide into misery (healthy defiance) and...
Yesterday would have been Marion Woodman’a ninetieth birthday. For those unfamiliar with her name, she was a Canadian Jungian analyst, a teacher, an author, and a remarkable human being, loved by thousands of women (and men) around the world. I only spent two weeks in Marion’s presence (one in Chartres and one in London, Ontario, where she and her husband Ross lived), but her books, workshops, and her way of being in the world have been an enormous blessing and inspiration to me – as a writer and a person – and this blog is written to honor her birth, recent death, and her enormous contributions to humankind.
Late summer into fall seems to be the time that humankind sets aside time to honor its elders. Senior Citizens Day was originally celebrated in the US on August 14, the date on which Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935. Fifty-plus years later, in 1988, then-president Ronald Regan declared August 21 to be national Senior Citizens Day. Two years after that, the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Senior Citizens Day, which was first celebrated on October 1, 1991, but is now observed annually on August 21. And in Japan – where elders are generally held in very high regard – Respect for the Aged Day is celebrated each year on the third Monday of September.
A paradox lies at the heart of human development: in the winter of life we become more freely, audaciously, and powerfully ourselves (Authenticity) and at the same time, we grow less concerned with ourselves (Self-Transcending Generosity). A feeling of kinship with other human beings and with all of Life often intensifies with age, and the sense of being a separate, solitary self is muted by a deepening experience of interconnectedness.
As we come to know ourselves as part of the web of life, self-importance and self-centeredness wane, and a more humble and generous way of being in the world emerges. Our unique, authentic core does not disappear, but in later life we grow more willing to transcend (literally, “to climb over”) our personal concerns for the sake of something greater.
To be fully and freely ourselves is one of the most joyful and hard-won gifts of later life. The primary psychological tasks of the first half of life are establishing an identity and making a place for ourselves in the world. Outer-focused, we take cues from family, friends, and societal standards; we play games, keep up appearances, and pretend a little, or a lot, in order to feel accepted, to belong.
But in the second half of life, fitting in and pleasing others become less important than being at home in our own skin. The joy of being and trusting ourselves is heightened for women because traditionally we have been socialized to value relationships and others’ needs ahead of our own. After decades of living for and through others, belonging to ourselves, at last, is an especially precious gift.
On Monday (July 23) Americans will celebrate Gorgeous Grandma Day – at least those who are familiar with the holiday. I knew nothing about GG Day until my oldest granddaughter Natalie ran across it while doing some online sleuthing a couple of months ago. The celebration of older women’s beauty is a heartening concept, in light of the mistaken yet tenacious belief that age and beauty are mutually exclusive. However, in places where elders are revered, “You look old today” is actually a compliment. And the Japanese have a term (shibui) for a particular kind of natural and unobtrusive beauty that deepens with age.
One of the more surprising things I’ve learned about aging is that older people are generally happier than younger ones. Several studies, drawing on data from dozens of countries, have confirmed that life satisfaction tends to follow a U-shaped curve across adulthood: contentment is fairly high in young adulthood, slowly drops and hits a low point at about fifty, and then steadily climbs to new heights in later life. Other factors, such as good-enough health, an optimistic outlook, and environmental support play a role in fostering late-life happiness, yet age itself is a friend of contentment. Long years often bring a maturing and mellowing of perspective, and changes in the aging brain also play a role in late-life well being.
In many places, older adults are respected, even revered. The Japanese, for example, regard their elders as “national treasures” and even have a word—shibui—for the beauty of age. And in societies where elders are valued, “You look old today” is actually a compliment. But where youth is the yardstick and age is mistakenly equated with devastating decline, we learn to dread getting old, which creates a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
Welcome to the first in a series of blogs about the surprising gifts of later life. Like most of us raised in our youth-oriented and age-fearing culture, my view of aging was pretty sketchy. I was blessed with wonderful grandparents as a child, and my mother became even more remarkable as she aged. But a series of events made me aware that although their being old hadn’t been a problem for me, my own impending oldness was. Knowing I was not alone in my dread, at age 54 when someone referred to me as a crone, I unexpectedly found myself looking for good news about growing old.