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Gerotranscendence--Good News for Caregivers and Their Aging Parents

Part Three of Three

Learning about the theory of gerotranscendence changed everything for me as a caregiver of an aging parent.  In his book Gerotranscendence, Lars Tornstam talks about problems the mental set of younger caregivers can create when they are trying to understand the very old.  We have been taught to see it as a problem when an old person seems disengaged. We fear that our aging parent might be depressed or sick.  He might have dementia.  He may have reached a stage where he is in a retreat from life as a preparation for death.

New Perspectives on the Inner Life of the Very Old

Tornstam’s research has uncovered another possible reason for what might look like disengagement from life.  In the developmental stage of gerotranscendence, an elder’s self perceptions and perceptions of the world change dramatically.  I learned that my father may be entering a normal stage of life where his inner world is more engaging and more deeply satisfying to him than bingo, crafts, exercise class or even, at times, connecting to us.

This stage of life is unique in several ways.  People in this stage perceive time and space differently. They have a more unitive experience of time.  The concepts of past, present and future are not as relevant to the gerotranscendent elder as they are to us.  This may look like dementia from the outside, but it is not.

What can look like loneliness, isolation, or withdrawal to us may really be the elder’s need for more solitary time to think, meditate and experience a blissful connection to ordinary events. Gerotranscendent old people often sit for hours just watching the clouds or the play of light on the leaves of the trees.  They need time alone to come to terms with significant changes in how they see themselves, their lives, and the world around them.  They need time to contemplate important questions about life and death and the mystery and the meaning of their own lives.

They want different kinds of social activity.  Instead of parties or large group activities, they tend to prefer quality time with a few close associates.  They are increasingly broadminded and tolerant. They want deeper and more authentic connections to others and lose interest in playing social roles.  This may be one of the reasons that elders value so deeply their relationships to grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

New Knowledge Opens a Door in My Heart

Older adults who have reached gerotranscendence lose the sense of themselves as being at the center of things, and instead see themselves as part of a much larger wholeness.  As a Jungian psychotherapist, these ideas were familiar to me.  Carl Jung’s theory postulates that the highest goal of adult development is individuation.  The characteristics that Jung taught were part of the experience of the individuated person sound very much like the characteristics that Lars Tornstam’s research uncovered in the very old.

Learning about gerotranscendence helped me to break down my troubling inner barrier to accepting my “new dad.”  Without my knowing it, my father had entered another country where I cannot yet follow.  From my limited knowledge, I had imagined this country to be a dark and unhappy place.  And deep inside myself I found the fear that this is where I am headed too.

I didn’t know that much of the anxiety and pain I had been feeling were not just for Dad, but for me as well, until it disappeared.  I couldn’t accept this fearsome outcome as a looming inevitability, because apparently at an instinctive level, I knew it wasn’t true.  When I learned about Lars Tornstam’s gerontological research with the very old, the door opened on expanded possibilities for my dad, for me, and for all my loved ones.  Stepping through that doorway I found compassion awaiting me on the other side.

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