My book, The Gift of Aging, could be considered a manifesto outlining the kind of work I like to do with adults aged roughly 55 and over. Far from being a time of decline and shrinking horizons, I consider this stage of life to offer unparalleled opportunities for personal growth. The following summary will explain why.

The Journey Inward

Carl Jung maintained that “the morning of life…should be devoted to the conventional concerns of establishing ourselves in the world.” When the afternoon of life arrives around the age of forty, however, “we need to turn inward…to reconnect with aspects of the self that we silenced in constructing our social selves and careers.” He believed that “an ongoing dialogue between the ego and Self in the second half of life brings us to wholeness and makes us more uniquely individual.” Jung believed therefore that, after midlife, “people should spend more time contacting their inner selves. We begin individuating, becoming and expressing the unique selves that we are.”

Ego Integrity

The great developmental psychologist Erik Erikson suggested that for most people, life involves eight stages, each of which presents a challenge or ‘crisis’, “a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential.” Erikson presented each challenge as a pair of opposites, signaling what might be gained from the experience, along with the potential consequences of failure. The challenge of late adulthood (from 60 years) is expressed as Ego Integrity vs. Despair. Ego integrity has been described as “a basic acceptance of ones life as having been inevitable, appropriate, and meaningful.” Failure to reach such acceptance means sinking into despair, “associated with resentment, guilt, and regret.” The successful negotiation of this challenge means being able to look back on good times with gratitude, on hard times with self-respect, and on mistakes and regrets with forgiveness. This leads to wisdom, a sense of fulfillment about life, a sense of unity with self and others, new levels of authenticity, self-understanding and self respect, and the ability to face death without fear.

The Completing Instinct

Commenting on Jung's findings, rabbi and author Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in his inspiring book From Aging to Saging, describes the work of achieving Ego Integrity as the Completing Instinct, which acts as “a natural magnet in the psyche, drawing together and arranging in patterns of meaning all that we have begun in our lifetimes.” Old age, then, is no sorry addendum to the real business of life: it is the climax and denouement. “If we compare our lives to dramas with various themes and dramatic plot lines, then old age is the time when the meaning of the play becomes clear to us…In this way, elderhood represents the crowning achievement of life.” Far from looking back with longing and regret, this is a time for harvesting the hard-won fruits of a lifetime of experience. In his Little Book of Life and Death, Douglas Harding declares:

You now have in the bag all the raw material, all the loose pieces of information, all the experience of life you need in order to make sense of it. What more fitting task therefore – what more urgent duty – awaits you now than this one: to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of your life till the master-design suddenly takes shape: enabling you to look back on those once so poignant and absorbing concerns as trivial in themselves, yet revealed as indispensable now they are subordinated to the great concerns: What’s it all in aid of? What, above all, is my true identity?

Through this kind of soul-work, old age can be a time of great happiness. Stephen Levine reports hearing some Elders say, “all that has happened is that their life-force has withdrawn into their heart and that it is in their heart that happiness has at last been found. ‘Like the sap going back to the roots in fall and winter’”. As another expert puts it, “life can resonate with joy until death... [T]he end of life can be recognized as an active, beautiful time of accelerated growth requiring courage, passion, and grace and offering the opportunity to be transformed.”

Guided Life Review

According to Narrative therapy, “People are meaning-makers. We have an experience and we attempt to find the meaning of it, and it is through the narratives or stories that we have about our own lives and the lives of others that we make sense of our experience.”

As long ago as 1963, Robert Butler recognized that, responding to their innate need for Ego Integrity, older people naturally and spontaneously undergo just such a process, reviewing their lives in order to impose a sense of meaning and coherence. He conceived life review as a “naturally occurring, universal mental process characterized by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences.” According to Whiting and Bradley, “In maturing adults, an awareness of finitude brings to the forefront a life review process wherein individuals seek to affirm the value of their past. Ego integrity results when meaning is confirmed in the life review.” This is “the last chance to edit a life story and make it come out ‘right.’ It is the last effort to explain, integrate and reconcile everything that has happened in the course of a lifetime.”

Guided Life Review has emerged as the counselling strategy of choice for older people, precisely because “the therapist taps into an already ongoing self-analysis and participates in it with the older person.” The counsellor's participation makes the work more deliberate and focused, adding direction, safety and support, companionship, clarity, and an overarching awareness of the purpose and goals of the process. The importance of this work cannot be overemphasized. It is the way for Elders to find meaning and purpose in their lives and achieve closure and peace, or else understand what needs to be done to find wholeness before it is too late. This might entail forgiveness of self or others, completion of some unfinished business, reconciliation, atonement, or acceptance. According to one expert, life review strategies “are not merely adornments of healthcare ‘if there’s enough time.’ They are its heart and soul.”

/Gift of Aging/The Gift of Aging Whole Paper.doc



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