Gerotranscendence: Often Overlooked Virtues of Aging

According to the Population Reference Bureau, the number of American seniors projects to at least double by 2060. Although many people resist the changes that occur with every birthday, getting older is a privilege. We often ignore the benefits of maturing, but this “third age” can be one of the most fulfilling times in your life.

What Is Gerotranscendence Theory?

Gerotranscendence theory was developed by gerontologist Lars Tornstam to dig deeper into the vital components of human elderhood. Tornstam posits that even though many of us view the side effects of getting older as a type of decline, we become more whole in the way that we experience the world.

The theory of aging says that we recreate our sense of self in our later years. Just because we look, feel and behave differently when we’re 80 than we did at 50, it doesn’t mean that we’re any less whole.

In fact, as we transcend into maturity, we become less preoccupied with our egos and more connected with the world. This transcendence can help us relinquish our fears of death and merge into an idea of communal human existence as we near the end of our lives.

While many people see the effects of getting older as problematic, Tornstam explains that the general perspective, not the typical behaviors of older adults, could be the problem. The indicators of health, wellness, and vitality at 20 are different than they are at 50 and 80.

For example, many elder care facilities focus on providing a wealth of social opportunities for their residents. That’s because social engagements and group activities are a sign of healthy living for younger people. However, what if elderly adults have a greater need for solitude than they did 20 years ago?

A resident who shies away from participating in social programs might appear withdrawn or depressed. If you view the individual from the perspective of this theory, however, you understand that the person has grown into another phase of maturity.

Three Dimensions

Dr. Tornstam’s theory looks at three dimensions of human existence. He says that as we get older, people tend to move away from a materialistic, practical worldview. We rise into a realm where the dimensions of self, cosmic energy and relationships shift.

To younger people, this may make elderly adults seem like they have lost their grasp on reality. If we recognize this as a healthy part of the changes that happen as we mature, it’s completely normal.

The Self Dimension

Some psychological and social theories claim that the personality is unchangeable. However, Tornstam believes that your self is constantly changing as you experience the world. In your later years, taking time away from other people helps you build your integrity.

As you mature, you have a decreased need for attention. You have been part of many communities throughout your lifetime, and you feel the connection between yourself and others. Your sense of purpose seems to fall into place, and you’re more comfortable with who you are.

The Cosmic Dimension

As you get older, you might merge the past and the present. From the outside, this is viewed as confusion. People who care for older adults may feel that this is abnormal behavior.

However, Tornstam believes that this is a healthy part of maturing. Older adults are more comfortable with things that they don’t understand. Therefore, they don’t have a distinct need to separate the past and the present.

As their ability to describe their experience using language diminishes, it also becomes harder to explain what they’re thinking and feeling. Instead of being seen as a detriment to their quality of living, this can be a positive sign that the individual feels comfort and peace surrounding their place in the world.

The Relationship Dimension

Tornstam assumes that people’s value in social relationships changes as they grow older. They may intentionally choose to be more selective about social relationships. They also need more time to themselves.

As people grow older, they may also become less concerned with social norms and other people’s opinions. Although this may cause them to act in ways that people in their 40s may disapprove of, many elderly adults have merely transcended the boundaries of what we assume is the proper way to behave.

Limitations Of The Theory

This theory can help caregivers come up with appropriate models of care that take into account what’s healthy for a senior. Using the theory allows care staff to assess patients in a more inclusive way.

A need for solitude can be seen as part of a healthy relationship dimension and not antisocial behavior. Facilities that base their standards on this theory can provide more access to nature and allow for more sharing of personal stories. They may also develop processes that help seniors express their sense of self through the continuum of time, such as journaling or art therapy.

The theory is limited in a few ways, however. Tornstam never defines Gerotranscendence. He explains that older people can transcend the limitations of society and the material world, but he never specifically delineates what the term means.

Tornstam also says that the theory is limited to elderly adults. Other researchers say that the sense of self, cosmic energy and relationships shifts and redevelops throughout every decade.

Finally, the theory doesn’t integrate mental health statistics very well. Experts say that up to 90 percent of people in long-term care settings are depressed. Tornstam’s theory would claim that all of the symptoms that we associate with depression aren’t necessarily indicators of the mental health condition in older adults. He says that negative experiences correlate with higher levels of transcendence.

The theory could redefine the way that we treat older adults with mental health issues. However, researchers need to explore the theory and current knowledge more deeply.

Dr. Lars Tornstam

Dr. Lars Tornstam was a Swedish sociologist and a professor at Copenhagen University and Uppsala University. His theory is similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which was amended in Maslow’s later years to include the idea of going beyond your potential and experiencing communion beyond the self.

Tornstam researched gerontology for more than 30 years. His initial work on Gerotranscendence made a splash in the late 1980s. It reversed society’s notions that healthy aging involves continuing to form social relationships and staying productive. The idea that retreating into your consciousness and disconnecting from the material world is a healthy sign of maturity was somewhat revolutionary at the time.

The theory continues to evolve. As we learn more about the differences between dementia, cognitive decline and Gerotranscendence, elderly adults and those who care for them may be able to support them better as they glide into this gratifying stage.

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers is currently a Resident in the Internal Medicine program at UTMB. He studied at the University of Queensland School of Medicine as well as received his Master’s in Public Health with a focus in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Southern California. His background is in biology, computer science, public health, and internal medicine.

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