Tag Archives: experience of aging

Positive Aging: Getting the Word Out

SAMS2-8-14I was fortunate to be interviewed by Sharon Dargay at the Observer-Eccentric, Hometown Life publication.  Her article appeared last weekend.  I tried to make the point that we need to look aging squarely in the eye, so that we can prepare for that period of our lives and make the most of its opportunities.  The media can help us change perceptions of aging that are outmoded and inaccurate.  Older adults aren’t old ladies in house dresses knitting in their rocking chairs or old men puttering around in the garage.  Today’s older adult is engaged and active.  We’re involved  in our communities; we’re staffing the polls; we’re helping our children and grandchildren; we’re mentoring younger people; we’re volunteering; we’re working out; we’re caring for ill family members; we’re engaging in creative pursuits; and we’re starting encore careers.  We also command significant assets and income.  I truly appreciated the opportunity to promote positive aging and to emphasize the need to transform our attitudes and perceptions of later life!

Sue Sweeney, Chair, Department of Aging Studies, Madonna University


What “Ego Integrity” Looks Like

Erik Erikson

You have probably encountered Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, in which he posits eight epigenetic stages.  In each stage a developmental crisis must be positively resolved for optimal further growth to occur.  The final crisis occurs in late life, in which a person faces mortality and examines his or her life.  This life review can result in either ego integrity, a sense of appreciation for one’s life as lived, or in despair, a sense of regret and disappointment over the outcomes of one’s life.

In teaching adult development, I’ve found it much easier to convey the experience of despair.  Students seem to understand that a person could look back over her lifetime and conclude that she had not accomplished enough, had made bad choices, or harmed others unnecessarily.  Getting across the experience of ego integrity has been less successful.  Feeling a sense of satisfaction seems a pale accomplishment in contrast to the wrenching feeling of despair.  Then I read a brief essay in the New York Times online edition by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks

Among other writings, Dr. Sacks has written numerous very readable books about how people experience and adapt to unusual neurological phenomena and pathologies.  He is 81 and describes himself as robust.  However, he recently learned that he has metastatic and terminal cancer from a rare tumor he’d thought had been cured nine years ago.  The article, entitled, “My Own Life”, contains what I consider an eloquent representation of ego integrity.  It contains  a deeply genuine expression of expansiveness, individuality, and aliveness in the face of impending death.  He ends his essay with this observation, “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

I urge you to read his moving essay.  To me it contains inspiration that each of us may reach the end of our lives  with a measure of authenticity, clarity, and gratitude.  It also conveys a sense of celebration of a life well-lived.  That’s the kind of ego integrity I hope to accomplish and wish for all of us!

Sue Sweeney, Chair, Department of Aging Studies, Madonna University

Spiritual Advantages of Later Life

ClockSpiralBelow is the link to an expanded version of the PowerPoint presentation I used in an interactive discussion with a church group about spiritual growth in older age.  It seems to me that there are certain inevitabilities about aging that transcend societies and cultures: a shortening of time perspective, the accumulated lifetime experience, and eventual physical decline .  How we respond to these inevitabilities will be affected by our world view.  In our culture another inevitability makes the experience of aging more harrowing, and that is pervasive and unconscious ageism.

These inevitabilities invite us to undertake a number of developmental tasks to respond and adapt.  The tasks include self-esteem regulation, managing our foreshortened time span, coming to terms with decline, dealing with dependence, facing death, relating to unfinished business, and leaving a legacy.  Inherent in these challenges are opportunities for spiritual growth, which our limited time perspective calls for us to use.  We can learn to be more patient, to be less petty, to let go of old hurts and resentments, to fully appreciate the present moment, to take on social roles that befit us as elders with a lifetime of experience, to view ourselves as a part of a whole, and much more.  Our need for spiritual stamina increases as we age, as does our ability to share our hard-won spiritual achievements with others.

For each task, I have suggested some opportunities, some tools for exploring them, and ideas for sharing each person’s journey with others.  Finally, several resources are listed that can assist with a number of these challenges.

The Spiritual Advantages of Later LifeExpandedPub1–14

Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University

America’s Oldest Teacher

I recently read an article about an exceptional nursing home that excels in care of persons with dementia.  One of the staff was quoted as say, “when I get dementia, I want….”  Maybe she thinks in terms of the inevitability of cognitive impairment because of working in memory care or maybe she thinks that way to reduce emotional distance from the residents with dementia.   However, I got mentally stuck when I read that quotation.  I realized that I don’t want to believe that cognitive impairment is inevitable.  I’d rather aim for clear thinking and functional memory for as long as I live. That’s why I cherish the models of very old people who continue to grow intellectually and challenge themselves.

Agnes Zhelesnik's 100th Birthday Party

Agnes Zhelesnik’s 100th Birthday Party

Agnes Zhelesnik is a case in point.  At 100 years of age, she’s teaching home economics full time at Sundance Elementary School in New Jersey.  She got bored with playing bridge, so she found her present job at age 81.  She hasn’t even called in sick in the last two years.  I believe that a deep sense of purpose and meaningful pursuits help us to remain healthier, live more happily, and ultimately live longer.  I want to be like Agnes!  Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University

The “O” Word

When I turned 60, I discovered with surprise that I had internalized the stigma which, in our mainstream culture, is associated with being old.  I’d taught the concept of internalized ageism for years, but somehow I didn’t expect to experience it.  After my 60th birthday, I gave more thought to what I should be wearing and how I should behave.  I was reluctant to let people know my age.  I started re-evaluating my goals and future plans.  And I felt somewhat diminished to be entering old age.  But I was a young elder, and I relied on that fact to maintain self-esteem.

SAMSPhoto8-13Now I’m 65; I have my Medicare card; and I can no longer claim to be entering old age.  I’m  old, and that engenders many mixed feelings, mostly bad ones.  I worry about every pain and physical set back as a harbinger of coming dysfunction and ultimate demise.  I’m acutely aware that I don’t know if I’ll be able to take long bicycle rides, do the heavy yard work, or take long road trips for very much longer.  To my inner self, my value clearly lies in what I can DO, not in who I am, what I know, or what I have contributed in my lifetime.

Last week I attended two educational events:  a hospice workshop and a presentation on lifelong learning.  One would expect these events to be elder-friendly, and in general they were.  But in both events, people joked that they themselves weren’t getting old.  Pretty much everyone laughed, except me.  I don’t blame people for laughing.  Our societal ageism is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even recognize it.  It now strikes me that our attempts to deny our aging are very much akin to the attempts, in decades past, of light skinned black people to pass as white.  It’s regarded as shameful in some way to be old.

I think we need to claim the “O” word, to assert that we’re old with equanimity.  We need models of old pride, just as we needed models of black pride in the 60’s and 70’s.  And I don’t just mean the outliers, the amazing athletes, performers, or public servants, although I relish their stories.  We need models of everyday folks who are old and interesting because of their contributions, their insights, their perseverance, their faith, their commitment, their ability to endure, their roles in their families, their expressions of caring….  We can find such examples in every neighborhood.  They don’t tell us because they don’t think they’re anything special.  And we don’t bother to ask.  Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University

Brutal Job Search Reality for Older Americans Out of Work

Paul Solman of PBS NewsHour has a series on the experience of older workers in the US, and this video focuses on the long term unemployed who are 55 years of age and older.  Over half of unemployed older workers are considered long term unemployed.  According to the video, a factor that is significantly responsible for the failure of older workers to find jobs is age discrimination, largely due to the stereotypes of hiring managers and HR professionals.

The film is just over 10  1/2 minutes in length, and is preceded by a 30 second ad.  Click the following link to view the film:  Brutal Job Search Reality for Older Americans Out of Work

Sue Sweeney, Chair, Gerontology Department, Madonna University