Stage 8: The Ageing Adult
We return now to the stages. Any time from the late-fifties onwards, awareness may arise that the last main stage of life is approaching. From this point on certain evidences of decline start inevitably to declare themselves: changes in appearance, loss of agility, diminution in energy and initiative; perhaps some feeling of ennui or fatigue around activities – occupational business, child-care, or whatever – that may have been carried on happily enough over many past years. Of course, the onset of these things varies markedly from person to person, and perhaps with profession. Political or business leaders often remain both vigorous and committed to their work, well through their sixties. Many writers or creative artists may also go on producing through the same years, though they may have to find a ‘third period’ style.
However, for one and all in these later years a dilemma increasingly asks for resolution. As age advances, is the best thing simply to give up, more or less gracefully; to resign and prepare oneself for steady decline and death? Or should one fight to retain all the activities of earlier years (as well as the personal appearance that goes with them) as long as conceivably possible? Neither prospect is happy. On the one side there is a decline into second childhood and dependency, a status that modern society, with all its stress on high activity is only too willing to assign to the ageing. On the other, there is an ultimately ridiculous attempt to deny reality. On the one side, despair. On the other, impossible hope.
What is the way out? Here, even more than before, the difference should be noted between a compromise and a synthesis. Faced with the dilemma just described, it will be natural and sensible to strike balances: to lay down or reduce certain burdens, but to remain active in other spheres; to accept ageing appearance but still to groom and dress smartly; and so on. But a true synthesis does not just strike balances: it moves to a higher plane. What is really required, we suggest, is a final synthesis that may shortly be described ascaring acceptance. In this, the strand of giving-up is transmuted to a positive acceptance; acceptance of decline, likely ill-health, and death, as well as acceptance of the manifold happinesses, large or small, that life may bring until its very end. The strand of continuing drive and activity is transmuted into a more gentle and pervasive caring; caring in a giving and not just a feeling sense. In the fullest synthesis the two strands become so fused that each is simply an aspect of the other.
Speaking generally, every synthesis is a transcendence, literally a ‘climbing beyond’. But at this stage there is the possibility of transcendence of quite a new kind, namely, and unlike previous stages, a significant change from the hither-to-settled focus on one’s own immediate society and patch. There is a possibility of going beyond given family, friends, or tribe to an identification with human beings at large, to whatever classes, kinds or nations they may belong. To this may be added a new sense of closer communion with the natural world; with the world of plants, animals, and earth. There may be a lessening of a habitual concern for current affairs in favour of a greater recognition of the deeper processes of time and history. Overall, there may be a feeling of moving beyond one’s separate individuality to a sense of being simply a part of the great whole. Old age offers the last chance for such changes (though this does not mean to say that there cannot have been moves in this direction in earlier years).
In any event, age proffers one potential advantage for all concerned. In the nature of things, age implies some lengthy accumulation of knowledge and experience. Out of it, greater wisdom may grow. Much of the caring for others that may infuse a properly-developed old age will draw upon such a quality. Acting as the holders and purveyors of wisdom is the role of the grandparent in many traditional societies, and one that is in grave danger of being lost in many modern ones. Those in the prime of mature adulthood naturally carry most of the power in societies in their various roles as parents, trainers, executive leaders and mentors. But those in the stage beyond, as grandparents, counsellors, honorary presidents, or simply themselves, can offer something broader and greater. In all these ways then, the final stage need not be a miserable dwindling, but a yet-further evolution or transformation.