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Interview: Writing New Narratives of Aging


Philosopher Hanne Laceulle received the 2017 European Network in Aging Studies Award for her PhD thesis, Becoming Who You Are.

Stories about old age are often bleak, but they don't have to be. Philosopher Hanne Laceulle argues if we stop looking at aging in terms of loss and dependency, we can capitalize on the potential of later life. This potential includes the tremendous cultural and spiritual opportunities that a long life provides.

Laceulle's philosophical work draws from Aristotelian virtue ethics that focuses on how to lead a "good" life, rather than on formulating protocols and rules for action.

Laceulle received the 2017 European Network in Aging Studies Award for her PhD thesis on aging, self realization and cultural narratives about later life.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Laceulle at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

Ruth Dempsey: Our notion of oldness changes from time to time and culture to culture. Where did you focus?

Hanne Laceulle: In my dissertation, I focus on two main narratives: decline narratives and age-defying narratives.

Decline narratives see old age as a gradual and inescapable process of deterioration.

Age-defying narratives, such as the successful aging paradigm, argue that by staying productive and mentally, physically and socially active, we can have a successful, and by implication a "good" old age.

RD: You say both narratives fail older people. How so?

HL: To start, decline narratives focus on loss of potential, creating a blind spot for the gains people may experience in later life. For example, increasing wisdom, spiritual growth or deepening friendships.

At first sight, age-defying narratives, may appear more positive. But critics have pointed out that these narratives are rooted in youth-related frameworks that value fitness, speed, productivity, activity and so on.

In short, both narratives fail to acknowledge that later life may have merits and potentials of its own.

RD: Pointing to a role for philosophy, you propose a different kind of narrative. Can you give me the main points?

HL: Self-realization is a moral concept with ancient roots. It reaches back to the Socratic ideal of "knowing yourself" and the Aristotelian concept of self-fulfillment. The classical conception of self-realization is found in Aristotelian virtue ethics. Individuals are seen as striving to realize their full potential as human beings, thereby reaching eudaimonia or happiness.

So virtue ethics is concerned about how to lead a "good" life rather than formulating protocols and rules for action. In this vein, self-realization is about the search for meaning
– our longing to experience life as a coherent "whole."

Second, self-realization is a life-long process. Over the course of our lives, we are constantly becoming another version of ourselves. Ideally, we are growing toward a self that is more reflective of the self that we aspire to be. In other words, becoming more fully ourselves.

Self-realization is about living one's values, not as an isolated individual, but in dialogue with others in the community.

So instead of loss and decline, a self-realization perspective values life experience and stresses opportunities for growth and flourishing.

As significantly, virtue ethics acknowledges that vulnerability and finitude are part of life. It emphasizes the importance of wisdom, including an ability to deal with uncertainty, a capacity for empathy and compassion toward others as well as a desire to contribute to the common good.

RD: What is society's role?

HL: Society has an important role to play in facilitating a meaningful old age. But our culture is filled with aging anxiety and rejection.

That said, I think it is important to create social settings that encourage and support development in the older years.

Among other things, this means:

  • creating valued social roles for older people
  • fostering intergenerational contacts in order to overcome prejudice
  • supporting moral development and lifelong learning
  • fighting ageism, and
  • reducing social inequalities.

Change takes time, but when significant numbers of individuals begin to live out the new narratives, they change social norms.

RD: Research on aging tends to focus on health-related issues. Human development is seldom top of mind . . .

HL: Certainly, health is important, but a meaningful life is about more than health. Also, aging unfolds differently for everyone. I know a number of older people who have serious health issues, but still manage to lead rich and fulfilling lives. Instead of being perplexed by their vulnerabilities, they have somehow found ways to cope.

A better story of old age is possible. It's time for gerontology to look beyond health issues because a good old age encompasses so much more. Meaning in life, sense of purpose and social connectedness, for example.

Philosophy has a long history of dealing with existential questions. Philosophers may be able to provide guidance on some of these issues.