For the past month or so I’ve been gradually reading the latest issue of The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, which happens to be devoted to the concept of transpersonal gerontology.
I’d never heard of this concept before, and it has been a slow and steady process going through the issue as I’ve been finding each and every article to be quite valuable in expanding my understanding of old age and the potential held by this time of life.
(If you are interested and able, I highly encourage you to check out this offer from the Association of Transpersonal Psychology to receive a PDF copy of the issue.)
So, you may be asking yourself, “What’s transpersonal gerontology?”
I’m glad you asked.
In a nutshell, transpersonal gerontology suggests that the time of old age holds the possibility for continued psychospiritual development and expanded consciousness. Holding a transpersonal awareness of old age means that this time of life carries more significance and potential than may have been traditionally recognized in other models of aging.
This perspective of aging resonates with me because I believe that the entire spectrum of our lives should hold opportunities for continued growth, and in particular, it makes sense that our older years would be a time of increased spiritual growth and a redeveloped sense of consciousness.
Yet how common is it in our society to dismiss or disparage old age and to dread getting older? There seems to have been a cultural understanding (at least in the US) that life ends once one retires from working. It’s as though if one isn’t producing income or generating material wealth, then one’s life is no longer considered productive or meaningful. (Although this seems to be changing as more and more baby boomers retire.)
And from reading through the ATP Journal, I learned that this view of old age isn’t necessarily universally held by older adults.
Twenty-five years ago, Swedish sociologist, Dr. Lars Tornstam, developed a theory called gerotranscendence in which one grows into a new outlook of life where an implied shift is made “from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and more transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction” (p. 166). Research done with older adults in Sweden and Taiwan suggest that gerotranscendence exists across cultures.
What was particularly interesting to me is that some behaviors that may be otherwise labeled as something negative, such as labeling as “withdrawing” when an older adult prefers to spend time alone. This could instead be reinterpreted as something positive to that individual’s growth when viewed through the lens of gerotranscendence.
Reading that was like a light bulb going off for me because it forced me to check my assumptions about aging while also giving me another way of viewing behaviors that I may otherwise find concerning. This provides for a larger view, which can be beneficial in my clinical work with older adults.
Another significant piece for me as a music therapist was that several informants participating in Tornstam’s study identified “how music has come to be experienced as a qualitatively new language, giving access to a new dimension of reality” (p. 171).
This seems to suggest that music therapy might be needed even more in elder care, due to a music therapist’s skillful ability to create and facilitate meaningful therapeutic musical experiences which can support emotional or spiritual exploration.
What do you think? How might a transpersonal perspective of aging affect how you interact with the older adults in your life? Likewise, how do you think having such a view of aging might influence your own aging process?
As always, please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below. And you can learn more here about the mental health services I provide older adults.
Tornstam, L. (2011). Maturing Into Gerotranscendence. Journal for Transpersonal Psychology, 43(2), pp. 166-180.