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Study: Age Revolution Gives Rise to New Life Stage


You are, of course, familiar with adolescence, but what about elderescence? The newly-minted term was coined by a mother and daughter team, psychologists Jane and Peggy Thayer. Elderescence describes the emergence of a new stage of life that may be seen as a transition period between adulthood and old-old-age – roughly from the 60s to the late 80s or early 90s.

One in 10 people worldwide is 60 or older. And that number is expected to rise to one in five by 2050 (UN statistics). Indeed, half of all the people who ever lived to the age of 65 in the whole of human history are alive today.

The Thayers report their eight-year study in Elderescence: The Gift of Longevity (Hamilton Books).

The study builds on work by leading researchers in the fields of sociology, psychology and gerontology, and the findings from face-to-face interviews and questionnaires sent to mostly retired professionals living in Massachusetts, New England. The study is dedicated to Stanley Hall, founder of the American Psychological Association. Hall first identified the post-retirement period nearly a century ago.

What are some of the defining issues of elderesence? In the early years, retirement heads the list. And the search for meaning continues to be a priority for elderescents throughout the period.

Life after retirement

Study participants hold conflicted views on retirement.

"Ricky", a former government worker, notes the low-key depression of his friends who opt to golf, garden and fish away their later years. He says: "There are two keys to keeping spiritually alive after a stimulating career: keep working or do full-time travel"

But another participant, a teacher, who moved to her "island home" after retiring, says, "The past year was the happiest in my life."

Similarly, a retired social worker, turned quilter, is upbeat: "The days whiz by, the weeks too . . . I belong to three quilting groups and have three special quilting artist friends who critique each other’s work. I work with a group from my church, help with the annual Christmas quilt raffle. As I think over this transition I see that I have traded my outside career work for my life as a quilter. I am a quilter now! I work at my own pace and direction. I am totally blissed."

On the other hand, "Walter", 67, a retired minister, remembers his mother’s advice: "Never retire, for then you will quickly become nothing but a has-been. This can be particularly true for those who are alone, for those with uncertain health or for those with limited talent and personality. Often a particular job and a certain position in life offer the main reason for being."

Other participants worry their money will run out with the prospect of 20 to 30 years ahead of them and increasing cuts to social service.

Some elderescents return to the workplace following an initial "honeymoon phase." Some even return to their original jobs part time. Others immerse themselves in volunteer work or mentoring young people. About 20 per cent of elderescents never retire.

"Retirement is the last major developmental task of life, and yet few resources are available to help people make a successful transition," the authors report.

Finding meaning in later life

Not surprisingly, profound shifts in meaning occur, as the tempo and focus of life change during the aging process.

"Margaret", a novelist, searched for a deeper understanding of self, as a way to tranquility and self-acceptance, after her husband died of a stroke, when she was in her 80s.

"Is there an inner woman than the woman I see in the mirror, who is that woman?" Margaret asks. "Are we our names? Where we were born, our ancestors, where we live, our friends, our occupations, our appearance, our feelings, our family? What are the aspects of myself that give my life meaning?"

She concludes: "What endures is my integrity, my heart, my love of nature, my values, my inner most being. All the rest can be easily lost."

Another study participant felt less fear of death, following a major heart attack at the age of 67. "As there is a winding down of the body, there is also an increase in spiritual life and energy," he noted.

"Life is a process of being involved in the moment," says "Stan", a thoughtful 75-year-old. He maintains his "joie de vivre" by nurturing his second marriage, keeping in contact with his three children, studying and fostering an active spiritual life and community service.

And one 73-year-old, who notes he has become less ego-driven, has discovered comfort in the natural world. "I am part of all this nature. I am one with it. I feel it. I know it," he said.

Stanley Witkin, former editor of Social Work, points out meaning in later life is not just the individual’s responsibility, the society has a responsibility too. However, institutions today – from churches to recreation facilities – seem oddly out of date when it comes to responding to the possibilities and challenges of an aging population.

As a result, some older adults suffer confusion and uncertainty as they struggle to understand societal expectations and determine their own wants and needs.

Nonetheless, the authors are upbeat about possibilities for elderescents of the future, predicting expanded social roles and more life options. In the meantime, they argue, "It is essential that elderescents themselves acknowledge this new stage of life so that they can reflect on the changing face of the world . . . and provide wisdom to the younger generations."