We can’t deny that aging can be challenging. Those living into oldest-old years may experience tremendous loss: of family and friends through death; of independence as they become limited through physical and cognitive changes; of loneliness when isolated at home or in a care facility. As discussed in an earlier blog, “Moving from ‘age as loss” to ‘aging with gifts’’’, the gift of reflection, spirituality and creativity are resources available to all that can connect or re-connect one to purpose, peace and confidence, providing important coping tools for overcoming loss. However, finding, holding on to, and enjoying the gifts may require support.
Reflection in older years for most is more than reviewing an event or a lifetime of events—it is an integration of all that one has experienced, of moving beyond the labels of “good” or “bad” and into a sense of comfort that, overall, we are complete. In Aged by Culture, Margaret Morganroth Guelette’s beautifully speaks to the process of integration and the gift that comes:
If, in telling our state-of-being, we find some co-identities disliked but admitted; some discarded or defunct; some unchanged; some improving; some in flux of new importance; some about loss and some about gain—all in all, the storied identities feel like possessions. Mine. Achievements of my telling and of my aging. Such achievements deeply and rightly matter to people.
So if this “gift” is so available to all, why might older adults miss this opportunity? It’s not an issue of training or education—researchers have found that the desire to spend solitary time in reflection happens naturally for most. Yet, the compression of losses that often accompany oldest-old years can create a barrier to thoughts of anything beyond the very present pain and sadness that can accompany physical, emotional and cognitive decline.
As a loved one, friend or care provider, you can’t force anyone into seeking or walking the path toward integration. However, you can help create opportunities to connect with the deeper more soulful self that can lead to renewed spirituality and purpose.
It’s important that quiet time in reading, reflection, and praying is respected as growth and not disparaged or seen and referenced as “living in the past” or labeling the older adult as depressed. Allow as much time as desired for the older adult to review, reflect, and rest in the quiet of contemplative thought. If the older adult is open to talking about her past, ask questions and listen, listen, listen. If you are close to this older adult, your memory of an event may be different—avoid telling your version or offering any contradiction or correction, and instead embrace the process and the potential.
Some older adults connect to their integrated self through a more active participation with friends, relatives or others exploring and recording their autobiography. This can be approached informally by taping or writing either by the older adult or the stories can be told to someone who can transcribe the interview. Additionally, there are experts who can help create this opportunity including Guided Autobiography (http://www.guidedautobiography.com ), also known as GAB. GAB is designed as a group process providing very specific questions that create a path to a positive integration of self. The process can be modified to support one-on-one interaction rather than through group participation. There are also GAB programs specific to religious or spiritual settings encouraging multigenerational interaction. For more info GAB, you can contact me via em: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether writing or telling one’s life story, the end result is often the acknowledgement of wisdom that comes from an accepted, honored, and integrated life. Recognizing one’s wisdom is not only a healing process leading to renewed purpose, but sharing that wisdom creates good will and connects generations that are often separated.