In her recent book “Ageism Unmasked,” author Tracey Gendron refashions a too-often-forgotten idea: there is a vital purpose for our later decades, should we be lucky enough to live a long life. She reframes “old age” as “elderhood,” a distinct developmental stage in the human lifespan that, just like childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, opens up new opportunities and calls us to accomplish a unique set of developmental tasks.
So what are the opportunities and life tasks that open up like a treasure chest once you reach elderhood (it’s a stage, not a number, but most of us probably reach it by age 60 or so)? I’ve outlined five aspects below. As you read this list, see if anything resonates or sparks an idea about your own life and the personal growth that might be in store for you.
You’ve never been more unique.
Older adults are more diverse than any other age group. Your health history and the sum total of your individual experiences, learnings, habits, and life choices make you a marvel to behold! One 85-year-old volunteers at a local food bank and has early-stage dementia while another runs marathons. One 76-year-old travels to see the world while another finds it in a windowsill garden. Elderhood is a time to celebrate your uniqueness: you are irreplaceable.
You strive for authenticity.
You are less willing to engage in people, things, or activities merely for show or status. Your circle of friends and acquaintances may be smaller, but each relationship will tend to be more meaningful. You may feel a pressing need to reflect on the different experiences and roles you’ve played in your life and to integrate them into the person you are still becoming today.
You embrace vulnerability.
At the peak of our physical and mental powers, it’s easy to think that we are invulnerable, capable of solving any problem that life throws at us. As we age, however, it is much more difficult to sustain this illusion. Our bodies and minds are aging; we all rely on the care of others. Learning how to embrace our own vulnerability with grace and strength helps everyone—at any age—accept and even celebrate our very human interdependence.
You focus on being and becoming more than doing.
We spend so much of our adult lives racing from one thing to the next, getting ahead in our careers, raising families, and living by the clock. As we get older, the present moment tends to blossom into a kind of richness and depth, a timelessness that was harder to attain when we were younger. At long last, we’re not trying to “get” anywhere. We are here!
You see the big picture.
You’ve lived through a lot. You have gradually made peace with the fact that you won’t be here forever. And maybe as a result of your accrued experience and wisdom, you start approaching what some call gerotranscendence, or the ability to look beyond the limits or needs of your own life to achieve a greater understanding and compassion for the needs of all.