The Importance of Aging and the Gift of Senescence
Notes: ‘senescence’ comes from the Latin senescere, meaning “to grow old”; ‘generativity’ is the concern for establishing and guiding the next generation and comes from a sense of optimism about humanity.
Oh no! Australians are living longer and so the population is aging. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, tells us that we should “celebrate the fact that effectively, one in every three children born today are going to live to 100,” but he also tells us that this means we will have to work longer, because all these centenarians are just going to cost us too much. They’ll increase Australia’s health costs, and take up hospital beds because there won’t be enough nursing home places. Woe is us!
Maybe an aging population isn’t such a great disaster. It is certainly better than the alternative – life expectancy in Sierra Leone is a mere 47 years!
What matters is not how old we will all get, but whether or not that aging will be meaningful, healthy and positive. This is something that the Uniting Church is particularly concerned with. We are an aging church. Most Uniting Church members are aged sixty-plus. How can the church ensure that our aging is a good experience rather than a frightening and depressing one?
One extremely helpful book I have read on aging well is called exactly that: Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, (written by George E. Vaillant and published in 2002). The Harvard Study of Adult Development started with a Harvard University Health Services examination of 268 members of Harvard classes between 1939 and 1944. This began with a physical exam and included regular follow-ups over the years. The second arm of the study began with Harvard Law Professor Sheldon Glueck recruiting 456 young men from inner-city Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945 as controls for a study of juvenile delinquency. They were added to the study in the 1970s.
Today, just 68 of the Harvard cohort are still alive, many in their early 90s, while 120 of the Glueck Study are alive, most in their early to mid-80s. Over their adult lives, the subjects of the have answered biennial questionnaires, allowed health information to be gathered from their doctors, and sat for in-depth interviews. In recent years, they’ve also submitted to neuroimaging scans and have given blood for DNA analysis.
What has the study found? It has found that ‘positive aging is not simply avoidance of physical decay, and it certainly is not about the avoidance of death’ (p. 161). It has found seven factors that predict healthy aging: not being a smoker or stopping young; adaptive coping style; absence of alcohol abuse; a healthy weight; a stable marriage; getting some exercise; our years of education (pp. 206-10). And it now provides wonderful pointers on how we can all grow old with grace.
- She cares about others, is open to new ideas, and within the limits of physical health maintains social utility and helps others. Unlike King Lear, who demanded that his daughters take care of him, she remembers that biology flows downhill.
- He shows cheerful tolerance of the indignities of old age. He acknowledges and gracefully accepts his dependency needs. When ill, he is a patient for whom a doctor enjoys caring and remembers to be grateful. Whenever possible he turns life’s lemons into lemonade.
- She maintains hope in life, insists on sensible autonomy (to do for oneself what one is able), and cherishes initiative. She remembers that all life is a journey and that development goes on for all of our lives.
- He retains a sense of humor and a capacity for play. He willingly sacrifices surface happiness for basic joy. As Voltaire suggested, he cultivates his garden.
- She is able to spend time in the past and to take sustenance from past accomplishments. Yet she remains curious and continues to learn from the next generation.
- He tries to maintain contact and intimacy with old friends while heeding Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s injunction that “the seeds of love must be eternally resown.” (pp. 310-1)
Another extremely helpful book I’ve found was written by Mary d’Apice and is called Noon to Nightfall: A journey through midlife and aging. The author is writing specifically from a religious background and so she talks a lot about the spirituality of aging. She writes so beautifully that I’d just like to share a few quotes from her for you to reflect on:
- Each season has its own special beauty, its time of blossoming and of producing its distinctive fruit. (p. 28)
- We find a genuine expression of love in the willingness to receive from others as well as to give. To accept help, kindness or concern from another means to surrender the dominant position, which rests always with the giver, and to allow the other to take that position towards us. (p. 67)
- Generativity is the prelude to the advent of wisdom. It is out of the pain and trauma of accepting our own limitedness that springs the capacity to be a bearer of life and hope to others. (p. 69)
- The coming of senescence, a gentler term than aging, is usually the time to hand over to younger generations the many responsibilities assumed in midlife, to quit the centre stage and leave the throne of power for the seat of wisdom. (p. 168)
- To age graciously is perhaps one of the most difficult of life’s tasks for those who live in a western society. (p. 168)
- Death need not take us by surprise. The whole of life is filled with opportunities to rehearse this final passage. The ready letting go of youth, of health, of plans and perhaps of friends, when this is asked of us, can all become a preparation for the last great renunciation that each is called upon to make. (p. 229)
Politicians tell us to worry about our aging population. The media tells us to worry about ourselves: will we have somewhere to live; enough to live on; something meaningful to do? But God reminds us that we are deeply loved, worthwhile, at any age, from the very beginning of our existence in our mother’s womb until we make that final journey and find ourselves at home with God. We can age graciously and look to death as simply the last of life’s passages, rather than something to be feared.
As for me, I’m now apparently well into middle life. According to Mary d’Aspice: “The movement into midlife brings with it a deepening concern for all one has produced in life whether it be children, institutions or ideas … The person who can put aside self-interest for the good of others is the caring, generative adult.” (p. 22)
I hope very much that I will grow into a caring, generative adult, and then into a graciously loving old person – with a cheerful tolerance of the indignities of old age!