Reframing Ageing: Growing, Not Slowing

Christopher Tovey, counsellor and coach in private practice researches the ageing process in order to revitalise its status. His research is practitioner based and aims to positively reframe ageing and develop counselling services.

Christopher Tovey

I am an independent counsellor and coach in private practice with fifty years of previous experience and professional development in care work, including advanced qualifications in continuing education, social work and psychotherapy.  I have been practising person-centred existential therapy for the last ten years.  In January 2019, at the age of 70, I began a full-time research PhD at Warwick University, Centre for Lifelong Learning.

The ongoing project is a qualitative narrative inquiry investigating the personal stories and individual perspectives of counselling service users aged 65 upwards.  I am interviewing volunteer research participants to discover how people in later life describe the diverse experiences of change and transition which led up to their request for consultation and how they evaluate their widely varied use of counselling services. 

I 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 Erikson (1975) 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 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 ten years as a counsellor, have been grappling with unhappy experiences of low self-esteem and have described and focused on 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 reframed as continuing to grow and gain wisdom until we get to the end of our story.

Challenging dominant current social discourses about age and ageing, Susan Pickard (2016) argues that none of the stereotypical attributes of the life stages are 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 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 themselves requires critical scrutiny rather than serving as a socially accepted starting assumption.  

My reflexive qualitative research assumes 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 berational thinking by men, despite half the population being women.  Pickard has written 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.  

Pickard’s 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 ideology’s 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? (Pickard, 2016)

Ageism and social exclusion in later life 

In the experience of many people in later life social exclusion is complex and dynamic, and it leads to the non-realisation of social, economic, political or cultural rights or participation within society (Burholt, 2020).  Social relations may be defined as comprising social resources, social connections and social networks.  Burholt (2020) identifies individual risks for exclusion from social relations (personal attributes, biological and neurological risk, retirement, socio-economics status, exclusion from material resources and migration).  Older people are affected by the influence of psychosocial resources and socio-emotional processes, sociocultural, social-structural, environmental and policy contextual influences may all contribute to experiences exclusion from social relations.  

Burholt (2020) describes the detrimental outcomes of exclusion from social relations on individual well-being, health and functioning, social opportunities and social cohesion.  Multiple factors combine and overlap to influence individual and group experiences of later life. What Burholt (2020) has termed ‘intersectionality’ describes the simultaneous impact of characteristics, such as gender, poverty and disadvantage and sexual orientation.  It considers the many personal identities and power hierarchies and systems that contribute to discrimination and disadvantage.  

Intersectionality offers a holistic account of people’s experiences of disadvantage and discrimination in later life and has the potential to offer solutions that are better suited to our increasingly diverse older population (Burholt, 2020).

Ageism, social Justice and human rights

However, while intersectionality has been considered in relation to particular ageing minorities it has not been considered historically in relation to ageing as a whole.  According to Westwood (2019) understandings of ageing diversity are currently impoverished in three main ways.  

Firstly, in terms of thinking about the ‘what’ of inequality, i.e. what inequalities operate in later life. There has been an excessive preoccupation with economic resources, and to a lesser extent, cultural norms and values, and an under attention to other resources, wider social processes, and to political participation and community engagement.  

Secondly, in terms of thinking about the ‘who’ of inequality, this is so far been limited to race, culture and ethnicity, and LGBT issues, with insufficient attention given to diversity within and among these populations and in relation to other areas of diversity.

Thirdly, in terms of thinking about the ‘how’ of inequality, social gerontology’s theoretical analyses remain underdeveloped.  The overall effect of this is that social gerontology remains deeply embedded in normative assumptions which serve to marginalise increasingly relevant minority populations. Sue Westwood considers this from a social justice perspective from three interrelated dimensions: resources (economic), recognition (social status, cultural visibility and cultural worth) and representation (social and political participation and access to justice).

The concept of resources has been expanded from economic to include affective resources (love, care and affection), social resources (social support) and formal care provision (Westwood, 2019).

Ageing, transitions and the life course.

My research is analysing the autobiographical narratives and perspectives of older counselling service users in terms of their experiences of later life changes and transitions.  I adopt a broad definition of life course transition which takes social and cultural context into account.  When considering transition in the whole lifespan, viewed from beyond an age-related lens or focus, it is often a lengthy process and not all change is experienced as such (Crafter, Maunder & Soulsby, 2019).   

Whilst movement through the life course might advance in one aspect of one’s life, other parts of life might regress or stagnate (Kloep & Hendry, 2015). This leads to another important element of change and continuity in transitions – unexpected life turning points that alter the trajectory of life in either large or small ways.  

Giddens (1991) identifies the role of key events in people’s lives as ‘fateful moments’.  He describes fateful moments as ‘sometimes when events come together in such a way that an individual stands, as it were, at a crossroads in their existence’ (Giddens, 1991. p.112), and that such events can have serious consequences for their future life trajectory.  

Zittoun (2007) uses the notion of ‘rupture’ to describe events that question what a person takes for granted, which means that the importance of the event is framed by the person’s own sense of transformation.  Therefore, seemingly small events for one person might create a rupture in another.  Some circumstances also present people with several alternative options or moments at the crossroads which have been described as ‘bifurcation points’ (Sato et al, 2009).  

Kloep and Hendry (2015) suggest that how people experience the transition process depends on the resources that may be drawn on as a way to deal with challenges. They suggest resources can be perceived in a variety of forms.  Some are innate resources we are born with such as certain reflexes, those that are more personal to the individual such as resilience, and those that are more social, such as family and peers, and those that are structural and societal such as access to education and health systems (Hendry & Kloep, 2015).  

Zittoun (2006) describes transition as a dynamic process, where change is active and involves change to the social, the personal and the material.  Transition can be viewed as a representing a range of different psychological processes and movements which may be broadly summed up in these four forms:

  1. Change in the cultural contacts (perhaps as a result of war, natural disasters or technology).
  2. Change of, or within, a person’s sphere of experience (such as the move to a new country, the death of a partner or sibling or retirement).
  3. Change in the relationships and interactions with objects and others.
  4. Change from within a person (bodily changes like illness or getting older).  

                                           (Crafter, Maunder & Soulsby, 2019; Zittoun, 2006).

Older adult education and intergenerational learning

Demographic transformations in European and other industrialised countries not only raise important challenges in the development of ageing policies but also offer new possibilities and perspectives in lifelong learning (Withnall, 2010; Schmidt-Herter et al, 2014).  In this research I  argue that responding to the challenges of population ageing on behalf of both governments and civil society is crucial for advancing higher levels of active and successful ageing.  

Recent education research in Europe indicates that ‘intergenerational lifelong learning’ has a key role in improving the quality of life and well-being of older adults because they promise to strengthen social networks and social support, influence social solidarity, and also foster economic development (Bar & Russell, 2006; Henkin, 2007).  Older adult learning also has immense potential to improve levels of productive ageing by ensuring that older workers have the necessary skills required by potential employment opportunities (Cahill et al., 2006; Chen & Scott, 2003).  

Intergenerational learning contributes to the policy areas of community cohesion, safety, health and well-being by bringing together different generations through meaningful activities and interactions, increasing understanding between people of all ages and stages of life, breaking down stereotypes and providing positive role models and challenging ageist perceptions (Schuller, 2010).  

My research will take a biographical approach to exploring the perceptions of older adults about their continued learning and development, considering the meaning of age and processes of socialisation in relation to cultural social and historical conditions of growing up, education and vocational careers (Withnall, A, 2010; Schmidt-Herter et al, 2014).  

My inclusion of adult education research perspectives in an exploration of older people’s experiences of counselling, in relation to transitions and changes in later life, contributes to the continued promotion of the vital concept of ‘long life’ learning in life- enhancing education practice and policy development (Withnall, 2010). 

My research investigates the idea that people in later life continue to have the learning and self-development potential to enjoy unique and varied forms of ‘gerotrancendance’ (Tornstam, 2005).  In his later life Carl Jung wrote an essay entitled ‘The stages of life’ (1933).  He came to the conclusion that adults generally started the second half of their life completely unprepared (Jung, 1933).  

He reflected that young people are educated to discover future goals to focus on, and to develop skills to achieve them.  Older people may or may not have already reached their goals and were assumed not to be in need of further training and education.  Subsequently, they went on with their lives with very outdated existential programmes and, as a result, many suffered from depression.  

According to Jung, the afternoon of life should also possess its own meaning and purpose.  Growing old in a meaningful way was not just looking back at one’s life, but also looking ahead, to set oneself new goals and to aim at further wisdom (Jung, 1933).

Four decades later Simone de Beauvoir wrote in ‘The coming of age’ (1972):

In order to prevent that old age becomes a ridiculous travesty of our previous life, there is only one possibility: to pursue a goal that gives meaning to our life.  To devote oneself to people, groups of people, an activity, social, political, intellectual, creative work.  It is to be hoped, and this goes right against the advice of the moralists, that our personal passions remain sufficiently strong at an older age to prevent that we turn inward (de Beauvoir, 1972, p.540).  

Reflecting on my motivation for conducting this research, the counselling process has often involved searching for meaning and purpose in what is happening.  Occasionally, talking helps us in our soul-searching efforts to achieve peace of mind, reconciliation with others, recovery from loss and trauma, or even redemption.  Especially in terms of the critical judgements we make about ourselves (Tovey, 2019).  

This research with people in later life takes place in a contemporary culture where we are more than ever seeking to understand ourselves better and find more meaningful ways of living.  In my counselling experiences with the Age UK Psychological Support service, I have often encountered older people seeking therapy who seem to be in what Frankl (1967) described as an ‘existential vacuum’.  They have lost their purpose, their motivation and their energy in life and feel that their lives are meaningless. They describe feeling as if they have stagnated and experience a sense of stasis and disconnection.  

In the existential philosophy at the heart of my approach to this research, it is meaning that links us to the world and propels us forward into our futures.  For Frankl meaning has to be ahead of our existence: ‘it sets the pace for being’ (Frankl, 1967.p.12). For those of us who have lost a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives there is a need to reconnect, and I argue that this is done by taking awareness of how we are living, what is important to us and what we value.  

According to Frankl (1967), all these aspects are contained within meaning.  I contend that meaning flows from our connectivity.  It stems from the way in which we are connected and engaged with the fundamental aspects of who we are; it brings our values and beliefs together with our emotional response to the world.  All these elements are needed to make sense of our present experiences as well as giving us a sense of direction in life (Frankl, 1967).  Continued social engagement, meaning and purpose in later life are key themes in my ongoing research.

References:

Barr, F.M., & Russell C.A. (2006) Social Capital – A potential tool for analysis of the relationship between ageing individuals and their social environment.  Ageing international, 3, 203-216.

Burholt, V et al (Eds.) (2020) A critical review and development of a conceptual model of exclusion from social relations for older people.  European Journal of Ageing 17:3 – 19

Cahill, K.E. et al (2006) Retirement patterns from career employment. The Gerontologist, 46(4), 514-523.

Chen, Y & Scott, J. (2003) Gradual retirement: An additional option in work and retirement. North American Actuarial Journal, 7(3), 62-74.

Crafter,S., Maunder, R. & Soulby,L. (2019) Developmental Transitions:  Development through symbolic resources. Greenwich,CT: Information Age Publishing. 

de Beauvoir, S. (1972) The coming of age.  New York: Putnam.

Erikson, E. (1975) Life history and the historical moment. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Frankl, V.E.(1967) Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy. London: Souvenir Press.

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age.  Cambridge: Polity Press.

Henkin, N.Z. (2007) Communities for all ages: A practical model.  In M. Sanchez, D.M. Butts, A. Hatton-Yeo, N.A.Henkin, S.E.Jarrot, M.S.Kaplan, A.Martinez, S.Newman, S.Pinazo, J.Saez & A.P.Weintraub (Eds.), Intergenerational programmes. Towards a society for all ages (pp. 147-166). Barcelona: The “la Caixa” Foundation.

Jung, C.G. (1933) ‘The stages of life’, in C.G.Jung, Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Kloep, M., & Hendry, L.B. (2015) The lifespan challenge model re-visited. In L.B. Hendry (Ed.), Developmental transitions across the lifespan: Selected works of Leo B. Hendry (pp.218-235) Hove: Psychology Press.

Tovey, CR. (2019) The world and I are within one another. BACP Private Practice Journal(March, 2019, pp.10-14)

Pickard, S. (2016) Age Studies: A Sociological Examination of How We Age and are Aged through the Life Course. London: Sage.

Sato, T., Hidaka, T. & Fukunda, M. (2009) Depicting the dynamics of living the life: The trajectory equifinality model. In J.Valsiner, P. Molenaar, M. Lyra, & N. Chaudhary (Eds.), Dynamic process methodology in the social and developmental sciences (pp. 217-240).  New York: Springer.

Schuller, T. (2010) Learning through life: The implications for learning in later life of the NIACE Inquiry. International journal of Education and Ageing, 1 (1), 41-51.

Schmidt-Herta,B. et al. (2014) Learning across Generations in Europe,1-8. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Tornstam,L. (2005) Gerotranscendance: A development theory of positive ageingNew York: Springer.

Westwood, S. (2019) Ageing, Diversity and Equality: Social Justice Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge.

Withnall,A. (2010) Improving Learning in Later Life. New York: Routledge.

Zittoun, T. (2006) Transitions: Development through symbolic resources. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Zittoun, T. (2007) Symbolic resources and responsibility in transitions. Young, 15, 193-211

Christopher Tovey is an independent counsellor and coach in private practice with fifty years of previous experience and professional development in care work, including advanced qualifications in continuing education, social work and psychotherapy. He has been practising person-centred therapy for the last eight years. He is a researcher and the subject of his research is reframing the ageing. Chris’ request for volunteers:

The ongoing project is a qualitative narrative inquiry investigating the personal stories and individual perspectives of counselling service users aged 65 upwards.  Chris Tovey is interviewing volunteer research participants to discover how people in later life describe the diverse experiences of change and transition which led up to their request for consultation and how they evaluate their widely varied use of counselling services. Please contact him here.

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