What you would say to a sixty year old who is always complaining about growing old and life going by too fast?
This is the question my friend Tod Sloan (or as I call him, “tsloan”) put to the graduate students in the Life Span Development seminar he is teaching this term. The course is required for future counselors and family therapists. When I asked him to tell me a bit more about what they are up to in the course he wrote, “We have tried to look at how development always happens in contexts that challenge us to understand and act in different ways, rather than seeing growth as simply natural.”
Tsloan is Professor of Counseling Psychology at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland, Oregon. His scholarship focuses on the psychological impact of life in capitalist consumerist societies, as in his book Damaged life (1996), and on the role of dialogue in helping us to explore alternatives. He’s also done some really fantastic writing and teaching around Critical Psychology (I use a couple of chapters from a C.P. text he edited in one of the courses I co-teach this term).
Tsloan and I share a commitment to critical social theory and praxis in our respective fields (you’ll get more of a sense of what this means if you read on) and have been engaging in an unfolding, on-going conversation since we met in 2006. The idea to have a more focused dialog about Critical Gerontology spontaneously emerged a few days ago when we were chatting on Facebook about his students’ responses to his question about the hypothetical sixty year old. Would you be surprised to hear that I was quite intrigued and offered to pop by his class sometime to talk about Critical Gerontology, development in later life, the Gero-punk Project, etc.? As time is of the essence (The last session of his course is tomorrow night. Not enough time to put together a grand performance.) we decided to start with a written dialog between the two of us – mostly me responding to his questions—and then see what happens next (Longer co-written piece in which I turn the tables on him? Music video? YouTube presentation that goes viral? Stay tuned!).
Here’s our dialog (well, it is mostly me chattering away!):
Tsloan: You are an advocate for critical gerontology. What does that mean and how would society be arranged differently if the principles of critical gerontology were widely applied?
Jenny: For the past fifteen years at least my intellectual commitments have been informed by the Critical Gerontology framework, an alternative approach for Gerontological education, theory, research, and practice that Stephen Katz refers to as “…a pragmatic and nomadic thought-space across which ideas flow and become exchanged…a magnetic field where thought collects, converges, and transverses disciplines and traditions” (2003, p. 16). The Critical Gerontology “thought-space,” as I’ve dwelled in it, has evoked several strong principles to guide my ongoing inquiry and practice, most particularly: 1) the importance of integrating the biographical and the historical, the personal and the political; 2) the centrality of collaborative theorizing, not only with other scholars but with my students, and especially with elders, the very subjects of – and potential partners in – my inquiry as a Gerontologist; 3) the commitment to intentionally grappling with – rather than attempting to simplify or reduce – the complexities of what it means to be a human being; and 4) the imperative that the ultimate outcome of all of my striving must be deeper understanding of human development and aging in the service of personal, social and cultural transformation. What I consider to be especially powerful about enacting Critical Gerontology is that it provides me with a meta-framework, a comprehensive sensibility, for asking and pursuing answers to questions about the most complex features of our travels through the life course as human beings because it foregrounds the recognition that who I am and the work I do in the world are inexorably intertwined. And, most crucially, it provides a lucid counter-argument to the narrow and over-determining normative discourses and practices that still dominate a great deal of the research and theory regarding adult development and aging.
As such, Critical Gerontology is transgressive and disruptive of the dominant Gerontological paradigm, which is wedded to the positivist and biomedical paradigms.
As a natural extension of being moved deeply by unique scholarly contributions from Ray (2003), Gilleard and Higgs (2000; 2005), Biggs (1999; 2005), Hendricks (2003), and Katz (1996; 2000), all of which have become central to much of the curriculum design and teaching I do, I have found myself turning the lens of Critical Gerontology back upon myself especially as I’ve faced major life crises and have reached what may be the mid-point of my travels through my life course (I’ll only know if this time of my life is the mid-point retrospectively, of course, and maybe I won’t even know, depending on the time and circumstances of my exit from the earth and return to the stars.). I have been supported in my movement toward deeper reflection and purposeful action especially by Simon Biggs, who asserts quite boldly in his discussion of research training for a critical sensibility toward aging experiences that, “We need, then, techniques by which to know ourselves and the contexts in which we work” (2005, p. S125). He continues by advocating that “…identifying multiple sources of empathic understanding such as similar life events and attending to biography, oral history, and testimonia may be used to enhance a will to understand. The problems of…amnesia of depth, indicative of seduction by simple states of mind, plus their undertow, the avoidance of personal anxieties associated with age, point to a need for enhanced self-reflection of this type (2005, S126).
I yearn for depth of understanding even about experiences which fall over the edges of my capacity to make sense of them. I try to bravely behold and embrace the messiness of being human. I think better with others, especially about the complex project of deep human development across the life course, and so I commit myself to collaborative inquiry and action. One of my current mottos is: Life is short– Act now!
Tsloan: Aren’t there any sorts of specific re-arrangements of institutions or practices that would make it possible for the lives of older people to be more meaningfully connected to others, perhaps beyond their immediate families? For example, ways that different generations could interact more and perhaps solve collective problems, including how to deal with growing numbers of elders, and their impact on the economy and politics?
Jenny: In my experience thus far in trying to do cross/inter-generational inquiry and activism what matters most is two things: establishing and sustaining genuine relationships across differences (and by “differences,” I mean cohort/age differences but all the other ways we humans are different as well) and finding yearnings, issues or projects that transcend cohort/age differences around which we can connect and militate.
So, it is complicated and tricky, yes? Because different cohort/age positionalities and experiences are important and need to be acknowledged and brought to bear and (punch line) we need to remember our fundamental humanness and create solidarity around a shared commitment to flourishing for all creatures regardless of time/space/place. And (punch line) the dirty secret that no one really wants to touch, sometimes not even Gerontologists want to touch this, is ageism: externally imposed and internally assimilated discourses and beliefs around age, aging, and life-course stages. Until we are willing to address institutionalized and intrapsychic ageism (and how it intertwines with sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, etc.) our best intentions and bravest actions will only take us so far.
But every day in small ways I resist and I see how others resist ageism and reach across the distances that exist between us. A current example is the Women’s Issues in Aging course I teach this term. I am holding this 11-week seminar at Mary’s Woods, the continuing care retirement center contiguous to the campus where I work. I have an open door policy for the course–any one can attend at any time. There are 9 matriculating undergraduate and graduate Marylhurst University students enrolled, plus another MU graduate student who has had the course already and is sitting in so as to work further on her thesis project, plus my mommy, plus two Mary’s Woods residents who just decided to show up and hang out with us. I don’t know if they will come back for the next session, and I don’t know if new folks will show up, but whatever happens is an adventure and I’ll embrace it and find a way to incorporate it into our cross-generational learning community.
Starting with the daily practices – my relationships, my teaching and writing — over which I have some purview and agency, rather than trying to blow up and topple ideological structures and social institutions, is my antidote to feeling hopeless and helpless.
Tsloan: Could you illustrate these principles more concretely by telling me what you would say to a 60 yr old who is always complaining about growing old and life going by too fast?
Jenny: Well, I would ask this hypothetical sixty year old person a bunch of questions rather than telling him or her a bunch of stuff that came out of my own professional and personal experience. Fundamentally, I’d want to understand better how he or she thinks about age and aging and later life – in general and specifically regarding their own travels through the life course. I’d want to develop a more focused understanding of what is underneath their complaints about growing old and life going by too fast. Is he or she feeling regrets about things that have already happened, about lost chances, unfulfilled dreams, or things they perceive to be mistakes? Is he or she living in a perpetual state of longing and loneliness? I’d want to know more about the contours of his or her emotional and spiritual life—commitments, beliefs, resources, aspirations. I’d want to know who their close-in creatures are —humans and other-than-humans – and how he or she spends his or her time and energy: self-care, other-care, political activism, creative work? I would aspire to listen closely to what he or she had to say so that I could understand to the fullest extent I could – to the fullest extent to which we can ever get inside another creature’s experience – how he or she constructs their reality and experiences as a human being. I’d pay attention to his or her energy when they spoke about their life – When they seem most bright and shining, what are they talking about?
Then I’d figure out what to say or not to say next.
Tsloan: So, let’s say the person tells you that s/he is fairly disconnected from others, is not feeling motivated to be helpful or of service, lives with deep regrets about ‘mistakes’, can’t find much joy in previous interests, and in general seems to be in unconscious protest against the fact of mortality? Isn’t there some radical way to reframe this (typical) narrative of decline, disengagement, and meaninglessness?
Jenny: When I contemplate this question my heart gets really warm and I also feel butterflies in my stomach. I get a little shy and nervous. I have the seemingly contradictory impulse to shake her/him silly (Life is so god damn short! And you won’t escape mortality! So snap out of it and embrace your singular precious human existence!) and also to put my arms around her/him and whisper soothing secrets into her/his left ear.
What secrets? That this journey we are on, for however long we are on it, is gorgeous and frightening as hell. Human development across the life course is emergent, we are always unfolding in real-time, and most especially when we are in full-on adulthood and then old age. But, alas, in the last third or fourth of our travels through the life course we have few models and frameworks upon which to call for guidance. It is exciting and scary because we are learning as we go along and by the time we’ve gone along on this journey for a few decades we’ve gathered a great deal of experience, life has worked away on us and we’ve most likely collected both gifts and wounds. And the models or frameworks that do exist for adult ageing and development may not reflect one’s very own experiences, anxieties, hopes and dreams, fears. Regrets about the past are only helpful insofar as we reflect upon our thoughts, words and actions and make changes in the direction of greater flourishing and ask others for amends if we’ve hurt them. Otherwise, to hell with regrets!
As my mommy might tell me, you have to “dig down deeply” to discover meaning on your own behalf. Not once, but over and over. And find your “kin,” your comrades far and near with whom you can engage in delicate conversations about what it feels like to be at the beginning of your seventh decade on the plant.
Sentience is such a gift! And it sucks, too. I mean—Who wants to be dogged by their certain mortality? I don’t want to leave this life, either. I really don’t. Even when I am at my most wretched I still would rather be here, be me here, than to not be here and to not be me. If this ever changes, then I will know perhaps it is time to make a different choice.
Tsloan: You call yourself a “Gero-punk.” What do critical gero-punks do?
Jenny: I don’t know what other Gero-punks do—that’s for them to decide! I can only tell you what I aspire to do as a Gero-punk. I am committed to Gerontological anarchy. Which is actually my response to a more generalized feeling of being fed up with the status quo globally and locally, especially in U.S. society, in academe, and even in my inter-personal relationships.
Age and aging are under-interrogated, under-theorized concepts and experiences. The life-course impacts of social and economic inequality and health disparities receive too little attention. Age and aging are everywhere and no-where at the same time. And Gerontology as a diverse field of practice and academic focus is mostly missing the boat in terms of really addressing these issues in a powerful, vibrant and timely fashion and in such a way that folks outside of academe can access and make sense of them.
This is the time for public gerontology, for taking gerontology to the streets. We need to keep developing cross-generational communities of interest, we need to keep creating lasting and genuine relationships that simultaneously harness and transcend cohort and age differences, we need to face human aging as a life-long, life-wide complex creaturely experience of gains and losses, muddles and revelations, stucknesses and stunning changes.
And we need to face issues of deep old age: loss, decline, frailty, and, ultimately, death. Issues which are, in fact, all about what it means to be a human being from fragile beginning to fragile ending.
One foot on the earth, one foot in the stars.
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