On Creative Aging

Creative Aging was the subject of a Socratic Conversation with Ron Gross on Thursday, May 30th.  Participants discussed new ways to thrive and contribute throughout our ever-longer life-spans — for our parents, our grandparents, and for ourselves — if we’re lucky!

Gross began by noting that Socrates himself reached the peak of his powers at the age of 70 (not an easy feat in those days) – and would have continued growing, learning, and “kicking butt” if he hadn’t been sentenced to death by hemlock! Found guilty of corrupting the minds of Athenian youth and not believing in the gods of state, Socrates, the “gadfly”, stayed loyal to his beliefs — youthful in outlook to the end.

So what about the elders we care about?  And what about those of us who will likely live past 100? Some predict the new generation, aided by advances in medicine and technology, may live as long as 120 years!

The Conversation focused initially on Ageism, the term coined by the late renowned gerontologist Robert Butler, on analogy with Racism and Sexism, to designate prejudices, attitudes, languages and practices that harm older adults.  As the discussion proceeded, it became evident that Ageism was not only prevalent in our culture, but that the participants had both experienced it in their own lives, and that they could begin to see how they harbored Ageist attitudes themselves!

A case study a 92-year old woman who had withdrawn from social life and become reclusive, without any organic causes, posed sharp issues that arise in coping with existential issues of later life. While some saw her as depressed and possibly needing help or intervention, others felt she should be respectfully left to lead the new kind of life she had chosen.

Turning to positive potentialities, participants noted the widespread and successful use of arts experiences to enhance the lives of elders, as documented in The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, by Gene D. Cohen.  Dr. Cohen argues compellingly that the brain gets better with age, as “inner pushes” impel new opportunities for positive changes in later life.  Among other books and key articles cited was Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging, by Lars Tornstam, which delineates how the aged manifest “a redefinition of Self, of relationships to others, and a new understanding of fundamental existential questions.”

In conclusion, the discussion focused on what each of us can do to address our own eventual “successful aging”, to avert the familiar plaint: “If I’d known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself!”. The probability for enhanced physical and mental health in our later years, for us and those we care about, lies in encouraging use of our talents, skills, time, and energy to get involved, foster social interactions, and create meaningful experiences  — “such as conversations like this one,” as one participant noted!