Growing not slowing: Positively reframing life
I am inviting readers of all generations to think of ageing as a positive and meaningful lifelong process of growth and development. We begin at birth and continue throughout our lifespan until we reach the end of our personal stories.
Ageing does not need to be negatively socially imagined, as the relentless and distressing experience of decline that dominant public discourse and the media tend to stereotypically project. The developmental psychologist Eric Erickson argued that one of our key problems at both a cultural and a personal level revolves around issues of identity. Today it seems that our defining it an existential crisis is our fear of ageing and old age.
Many people, at diverse ages and stages in their lives, who have consulted me over the last 10 years as a psychotherapist, have been grappling with unhappy experiences of low self-esteem, and have described their persistently self-critical and disheartening internal dialogue. I often invite people to consider a different, less judgemental, more compassionate and nurturing perspective, which also might include a broader understanding of the social context and personal meanings interpreting their troubled lives.
Unquestioned negative social attitudes to how we grow older and develop over time are often at the heart of how we all sometimes struggle with our developing and changing sense of who we are. Our ongoing experience of life, and how we tell and re-tell our own stories over time, usually involves increasing self-awareness, developing personal authenticity and expressing our unique identity, whilst continuing meaningful and purposeful engagement with the world and others.
This often self-critical reflective activity (sometimes shared in counselling), is a lifelong process of learning from experience which can be positively re-framed as continuing to grow and gain wisdom until we get to the end of our story.
In an illuminating multidisciplinary study of how we think about age and ageing as a society, Susan Pickard contends that none of the stereotypical attributes of the life stages is attributable to 'ageing' itself: not the opportunities of youth (for some), nor the disappointments or transformations of midlife (for others), nor the comfortable leisured lifestyle in 'young' old age, nor the constraints and challenges, social, material and physical in 'old' old age.
Pickard contends that such stereotypes are attributable to each stage of the life course but not to 'age' itself. The material attributes of the body that change and fluctuate throughout the life course, without our conscious involvement, are as much a part of our embodied sense of identity as the self-invention that we nowadays are encouraged to celebrate culturally in the modern world.
However, the meanings of these bodily states have their source in society, in particular in the hierarchical structures that separate ages from each other, as well as stratifying them internally, all cross-cut by the axis that places 'youth' to the positive side and 'old age' to the negative. The realness of age extends to the concrete experience associated with our existence as beings in time and our positioning at the stages of the life course.
However, both the meaning and the embodied experience of age is entirely variable according to the wider cultural scripts and social practices. Notions of a universal or timeless experience of age and ageing require critical scrutiny rather than serving as a socially accepted starting assumption. I believe that all 'knowledge' depends on social context and culture.
For example, Pickard explains how ageing socially affects women particularly negatively. She argues that there is an assumed intellectual tradition from science and medicine, through the canons of English literature, that has a patriarchal foundation. This conventional thinking is infused historically with the perspectives of prejudiced and discriminatory men positioning women as 'other'. This has become a 'normalised' attitude over time that still tends to carry the label of scientific 'objectivity' and is thus generally considered to be 'rational thinking' by men, despite half the population being women.
Pickard has written and persuasively about the extent to which this patriarchal tradition, and also some feminist perspectives, have continued to maintain the normalised age convention of the 'prime of life' adult. Her valuable sociological research poses some of the same important and urgent questions as my own ongoing narrative inquiry about the value of counselling in later life:
- How do we re-envision the meaning of old age and thereby undermine age ideologies grip on our cultural imagination?
- How do we challenge the view of ageing as deficit, and replace it with a more balanced and positive (but not age-denying) sense and significance that impacts on our embodied social learning and development throughout life more generally?
The counselling service users, aged 65 upwards, who I am currently interviewing for my ongoing PhD research are telling me autobiographical tales of transition, throughout life, of extraordinary power and diversity. Their wonderful stories continue to inspire me.
I wrote about this heartening experience in my recent article, 'Existential therapy and lifelong learning'. My own tale of unexpectedly becoming a student at the age of 70 also challenges some of the ageist stereotypes that constrain our freedom of choice in positively re-framing our lives.