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A new age of old age? Gerotranscendence and the re-enchantment of aging.

1. Introduction

It has been approximately a decade since the concept "gerotranscendence" appeared in gerontology (Tornstam, 1989). The concept was coined by Swedish gerontologist Lars Tornstam, who had come to believe that disengagement theory (Cumming, 1963; Cumming, Dean, Newell, & McCaffrey, 1960; Cumming & Henry, 1961) had been unjustly abandoned by gerontology. The idea that inactive living may be "natural" for old people was highly controversial when it was introduced by disengagement theory, and resulted in criticism from gerontologists who wanted to focus on the marginalization of old people instead (Dowd, 1975; Gruman, 1979; Kuypers & Bengtson, 1973; Townsend, 1986).

Briefly put, gerotranscendence is a theoretical concept that describes an alteration of consciousness in old age. The development of gerotranscendence is seen as a "natural" process that has been obstructed by structures of modern Western societies. (1) As a new theory of aging it has gained some influence in professional fields, especially in Scandinavian gerontology, and we believe it is high time to subject it to a critical review.

2. The Quo Vadis of Gerontology

In a 1992 article, "The Quo Vadis of Gerontology: On the Scientific Paradigm of Gerontology," Tornstam lashed out against what he called the "interdisciplinary myths" of research on aging. His main argument was that Western societies' strong performance orientation was reflected in gerontology as well. A widespread contempt for weakness and dependency and an emphasis on human qualities such as productivity, effectiveness and independence has been an underlying theme, and as a consequence, Tornstam argued, old people are wrongly measured by mid-life values:
   We force upon the elderly our own value-dependent theories, which at the
   same time means that deviations from the theoretical predictions are looked
   upon as being abnormal, pathological, or whatever term we decide to use.
   (Tornstam, 1992, p. 322, emphasis in the original)

Tornstam (1989) found theoretical scope in some aspects of disengagement theory, especially its focus on old age as something qualitatively different from mid-life. Disengagement theory was able to explain that some people were satisfied with life, even though they did not perform according to the norms of activity theory. Starting with these ideas Tornstam set out to outline an alternative and phenomenologically inspired theory of aging where performance-oriented human qualities of the productive sphere were replaced by alternative qualities such as rest, relaxation, comfortable laziness, play, creativity and "wisdom." According to Tornstam, this approach to aging was part of a whole new paradigm in gerontology by which the natural "self-punishing exercise programs" (Tornstam, 1992, p. 324) popular among some old people could be viewed differently.

3. What is gerotranscendence?

Tornstam asserts that gerotranscendence marks a paradigmatic shift from positivist to phenomenological gerontology. In order to explain the difference between the paradigms he uses a comparison between Zen Buddhist and Western consciousness (Tornstam, 1989, 1994a, 1996a):
   To reach a new meta-theoretical paradigm we shall have to leave our normal
   positivist way of thinking. For example, contrast our picture of the world
   with that of a Zen Buddhist. The Zen Buddhist lives within a cosmic world
   paradigm with many diffuse and permeable borders. In this world much of the
   difference between subject and object is erased. The statements made by a
   Zen Buddhist are often difficult to understand from the point of view of
   our meta-theoretical paradigm -- for example, that you and I are not
   separate objects but parts of the same entity. Past, present, and future
   exist not separately but simultaneously. (Tornstam, 1996a, p. 41)

Compared to people in Western societies Zen Buddhists thus live in a different world. In a Western society a Buddhist's daily meditation practice may seem exactly like disengagement, Tornstam argues. The Zen Buddhist, on the other hand, "probably looks upon Western people as limited and trapped in an obsessive, materialistic pattern" (Tornstam, 1989, p. 58).

With this comparison of distinct Western and non-Western human essences serving as ontology, gerotranscendence theory stipulates that as we age and to the extent that this "natural" process is unobstructed, our consciousness changes and becomes cosmic and detached. Consequently, old people's minds become essentially different from the minds of younger generations.

Tornstam often equals gerotranscendence with "wisdom," but it is not just heightened consciousness in ordinary experience that he has in mind. The process is recognized by a number of alterations, as listed by Tornstam (1989, p. 60):

* an increasing feeling of a cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe;

* a redefinition of the perception of time, space and objects;

* a redefinition of the perception of life and death and a decrease in the fear of death;

* an increased feeling of affinity with past and future generations;

* a decrease in interest in superfluous social interaction;

* a decrease in interest in material things;

* a decrease in self-centeredness;

* more time spent in "meditation."

This definition of gerotranscendence is in many ways a more structured elaboration of the initial Zen Buddhist comparison. In his following work Tornstam (1996a, pp. 42-44) breaks down the list further into three levels of signs of gerotranscendence: the cosmic level, the self, and social and individual relations.

3.1. The cosmic level

Changes in perception of time and space are accompanied by an increased feeling of being connected with earlier generations. The individual comes to accept the mystical dimension in life. Fear of death is replaced by a new comprehension of life and death.

3.2. The self

The individual grows towards wholeness and decreased self-centeredness. There is a change from egoism to altruism, a development of body transcendence, ego integrity and a rediscovery of the "child within."

3.3. Social and individual relations

The meaning and importance of relationships changes toward higher selectivity and less interest in superficial relationships. The individual develops an increased understanding of the difference between self and social roles, a mature emancipated innocence, an understanding of the petrifying gravity of wealth resulting in modern asceticism, and an everyday wisdom. A transcendence of the right-wrong duality leads to broad-mindedness.

We can find several reasons to be critical of Tornstam's distinction between Western and non-Western consciousness. For example, to what category does the mind of a Zen Buddhist living in a Western society or a "Westerner" living in a Zen Buddhist community belong? Is it biologically "natural" to be materialistically oriented in midlife? If so, how does that apply to mid-life people living in non-Western societies (compare Hauge, 1998)? Also, it deserves to be pointed out that in order to technically attain a "cosmic" level of consciousness a Zen practitioner must have reached enlightenment. In practice, this is achieved through hard work under a Zen master and represents disengagement only in the sense that the practitioner's concentration while in meditation is narrowly focused. But most importantly, and leaving the correctness of Tornstam's categorization aside, it is, firstly, a highly essentialist view of human consciousness with a marked qualitative distinction between "us" and "them," falling back on images of "Westerners" and "Orientals," the Self and the Other. Secondly, it is a highly individualist view emphasizing an internal individual process of aging where the social environment is perceived as a potential force of obstruction to a "natural" process of aging.

4. The impact of gerotranscendence theory

Since 1989, Tornstam has published several journal articles and book chapters about gerotranscendence. In a review of postwar psychological theories of aging, Shroots (1996) mentions gerotranscendence as one of two important theories introduced between 1980 and 1990. The fourth edition of The Handbook of the Psychology of Aging mentions it under the heading "Queries on the Adequacy of the Life-Story Model" (Ruth & Coleman, 1996, p. 317). This places the theory among approaches that investigates narratives, life stories, life reviews, and reminiscence of old people. The focus is on identity and personal changes related to the process of aging. (2) Gerotranscendence can also be seen as part of a search for spiritual, religious, and mystical dimensions of aging (Atchley, 1997). In contrast, some researchers relate the theory to concepts like health, caring and nursing. They are typically Scandinavian researchers who use gerotranscendence theory as an interpretative supplement to Erikson's life cycle theory, or recognize gerotranscendent traits among elderly people (Nilsson, Ekman, Ericsson, & Winblad 1996; Nystrom & Segesten, 1995; Seitsamo & Klockars, 1997). (3)

It is obvious that gerotranscendence has had an impact on Scandinavian gerontology. Tornstam's 1994 book "Aldrandets socialpsykologi" (The Social Psychology of Aging, Tornstam, 1994b) is arguably the most important Swedish textbook in the field. (4) It is used in a number of Swedish nursing schools and in university courses all over Scandinavia. The theory is thus well known among Scandinavian gerontologists, professionals, and semiprofessionals in the care and health care sectors. It is within these groups that articles referring to the theory (as related to Erikson's life cycle theory) are to be found. This linking of two theoretical approaches in clinical practice may explain some of the impact of gerotranscendence in Sweden. Psychoanalysis is well known in several sectors of Swedish society, from religion and the arts to health care. The ideas of Freud, Erikson, and Jung have been widely taught and debated. In broad terms, psychoanalysis is the dominating paradigm among Swedish psychologists and is also common among social workers. Even among doctors and nurses, with whom the biomedical paradigm has a strong standing, psychoanalysis has its followers. Some practitioners within the psychoanalytical field seem to have adopted gerotranscendence as a part of their paradigm (Engstrom, 1994; Kugelberg, 1994). Like gerotranscendence, psychoanalysis emphasizes old age as a distinct stage of life, with a possibility of personal growth. In her revision of Erik H. Erikson's (1997) The Life Cycle Completed, Joan M. Erikson actually devotes the last chapter entirely to the gerotranscendence theory.

The implementation of the theory has targeted semiprofessionals in the care and health care sectors. In their 1994 article in the Swedish medical journal Lakartidningen, Tornstam and Dehlin argued that activity programs for people living in old-age institutions may conflict with the "natural" process of gerotranscendence (Dehlin & Tornstam, 1994). Later, Tornstam and a research team launched a study investigating how knowledge of gerotranscendence can act as a supplementary frame of reference in caring for the elderly (Tornstam, 1996b). A group of 90 nurses and aides were introduced to the theory. In a following impact study, the variables "understanding" and "agreement" with the theory were analyzed. These activities indicate that the theory has entered a normative phase. It provides professional staff with a new understanding of the needs of old people by presenting the possibility that old people who do not want to join in activities actually may be transcenders rather than depressed.

5. Contradictory empirical results

Turning to empirical research results, gerotranscendence theory has been utilized in several empirical studies with both qualitative and quantitative approaches. The following is a brief critical review of these studies.

Provided that sociological rules of method matter, gerotranscendence theory can be subjected to the so-called "falsification criterion." According to this criterion, a theory can be proved or disproved through empirical application. A theory that cannot be empirically tested for falsification is not considered relevant for scientific purposes.

From this point of view gerotranscendence theory is empirically weak. Old people are supposed to gerotranscend, but if they do not, it is explained by the obstructive influences such as "Western" mid-life performance orientation. The obstruction hypothesis is used in some of these studies to explain why even modest correlation can still be interpreted as proof of gerotranscendence (Solem, 1995; compare Tornstam, 1997b, p. 29).

In a study carried out in Denmark (Tornstam, 1994a), 912 persons aged between 74 and 100 were asked to agree or disagree with 10 statements that were drawn from an operationalization of gerotranscendence. The answers were interpreted in relation to the respondents' experiences of life satisfaction. There seems to have been some support for the assumption that "cosmic transcendence" and "ego transcendence" occur and correlate with "life satisfaction." Since gerotranscendence correlated positively with social activity, the study concluded that gerotranscendence is different from disengagement.

Contrary to expectations, however, the respondents' transcendence did not increase during old age (Tornstam, 1994a). In an attempt to explain this, Tornstam (1994a, p. 216) decoupled gerotranscendence from age and proposed that transcendence might have occurred before the respondent turned 74 (the lowest age of the study's population). An alternative interpretation is that the questions do not really measure gerotranscendence, but something else. For instance, Blaakilde (1994, p. 283) has argued that she, at the age of 32, would certainly agree with the following statement from the study: "Today I take myself less seriously than earlier." Perhaps responses like these reflect a life experience that most people would like to possess?

A later study (Tornstam, 1997b) compared 2002 respondents between 20 and 85 years of age. The results of this study produced contradictory results. Six out of 10 "cosmic" statements correlated with age in the expected way. But statements about the "self-level" and the "social and individual relationship dimension" only correlated as expected in two out of six and four out of nine cases. Instead, several statements were contradicted by the responses. For instance, the expected transcendence of time and transcendence of barriers between individuals were not confirmed. The expected decrease in material needs, showing "modern asceticism" was contradicted, as were the assumptions of decreased fear of death and increased life satisfaction. In response to this, Tornstam suggested a modification of the theory, where confirming correlations represent the general aspects of the theory, and the nonconfirming correlations special aspects that only develop when several conditions are met.

The cross-sectional study also made other differences obvious. Gender, life circumstances, and crises seem to have been important factors associated with transcendence statements. Women scored higher than men on the "cosmic" dimension. An expected increase in awareness of "animus/anima" (male/female) components of the personality, derived from Jung's theory, was strongly contradicted. It is also important to note that the positive correlation between age and gerotranscendence did not support the fundamental claim of the theory, that old age is qualitatively different from mid-life. Tornstam (1994b, p. 283) has suggested a U-shaped development from high transcendence in early childhood, low in mid-life, to high in old age. The cross-sectional study (Tornstam, 1997b) shows periods of spurts for gerotranscendence in younger ages, and periods without major development or even decline in older ages.

Evaluated against the falsification criterion, gerotranscendence seems to be rather weak as a theoretical concept. But an assessment of empirical results and their significance based on the validity of general methodological rules can certainly be debated. From a more Kuhnian perspective, rules of method are not only secondary in the sense that different theories are incommensurable and cannot be used to test each other (Kuhn, 1962). They also consist of various perspectives, values and cosmologies, and are not just theories but include social and psychological properties. In applying Kuhnian reflexivity, we believe that it is significant that Tornstam relates his personal experiences and the social circumstances surrounding the genesis and development of the theory. The genealogy of the concept adds up to an almost perfect example of a natural history of a paradigm in an early stage of development, with its mythology about professional insights and rejections of previous truths. As Kuhn predicts, examples that support gerotranscendence are cited and anomalies are explained away. Supportive ad hoc hypotheses are included in spite of discouraging empirical results. For instance, when staff members working with elderly "failed to observe" the disappearing of fear of death, self-transcendence, self-confrontation, body transcendence, and everyday wisdom, Tornstam and Tornqvist (2000) did not make the conclusion that gerotranscendence did not occur, but that the staff had a keen-sightedness in some areas and a blindness in others: "Instead of stating that these behaviors were not there, we suggest they were, but the staff had no readiness to observe them" (p. 27). These kinds of conclusions are important when breaking with a dominant paradigm.

An important purpose for Tornstam's critique of gerontology was to break away from the positivist legacy in favor of a phenomenological approach that focused on old people's experiences and interpretations of their worlds. Part of his work has followed this track. For instance, in a study of 50 Swedish transcenders (Tornstam, 1997a) he emphasized the respondents' interpretations. In another study, Ahmadi and Tornstam (1996) used the theory of gerotranscendence to provide alternative interpretations to data originating in interviews with old immigrants traveling between Sweden and Iran. The researchers' so-called "double asset" approach enabled them to see how old immigrants utilize the best of two cultures. The increased capacity to transcend cultural differences through a process of maturation was contrasted with gerontology's traditional fear of a so-called "double jeopardy," and the search for misery among older immigrants. (5) A qualitative study on how observations and statements by nursing staff rest on theoretical assumptions also follows this trait. In general, however the gerotranscendence approach has been unable to free itself from the positivist legacy. In several of his empirical studies, Tornstam (1994a, 1997b, 1999b) uses standard survey techniques and statistical analysis, and also supports his qualitative studies with quantitative analysis. (6)

We believe that Tornstam's claim that gerotranscendence theory is a new paradigm is pivotal for understanding the ambiguity between phenomenology and positivism when it comes to his empirical studies. A paradigm is defined as an internally consistent approach to scientific problems, consisting of objects of knowledge (what the researcher studies), methods for gaining knowledge about the objects, theories, and models. Together with the researcher's selective perception, these units form observations or facts. In other words, the internal consistency of a certain paradigm is the fundament for its incommensurability with competing paradigms since they contain different theories, methodologies, and observations (Brante & Norman, 1995). Having a phenomenological theoretical ambition but failing to make a break with the methods of the positivist paradigm, gerotranscendence theory in practice becomes suspended in between (compare Blaakilde, 1994, Solem, 1995).

6. Where did the Zen comparison come from?

Even if Tornstam never pushes the Zen Buddhist comparison beyond a mere illustration of his case, it has in effect become gerotranscendence theory's ontology (compare Erikson, 1997, p. 124). The extent to which Tornstam's image of Zen Buddhism is correct or not is not in focus here. What is important is that he uses a Zen Buddhist image primarily to reflect our own culture, as a mirror in which the shortcomings of our own societies' ideas about aging are exposed (compare Hammer, 1997, p. 106). Seen from this perspective, gerotranscendence represents a counter image to the traditional gerontological paradigm where old age brings a negative deterioration of the individuals' productive capacity and mind. This tendency to look for ancient human essences lost to modern Western societies in Asian religions and philosophies of life and the idea that they possess a power to regenerate the "West" is sometimes referred to as romantic Orientalism (Huber, 1996; Lopez, 1994, p. 19; Lowe, 1990, p. 97).

But why did Tornstam choose to compare gerotranscendence with Zen? We believe that part of the answer to this question can be found in a historical connection between gerontology and the clinical practice of psychoanalysis that was mentioned above. Another part can be found in a direct link between Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis.

The diffusion of Zen in Western Europe and the USA on a broader scale in the twentieth century owes a lot to the work of the Japanese Buddhist scholar Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966). He translated numerous Zen texts, published journals, and lectured on Zen. He belonged to the Rinzai School of Zen. Suzuki presented Zen as a core wisdom disembedded from its Japanese religious, philosophical, and sociopolitical framework, borrowing concepts from modern psychology, Darwinism, and German idealism to "orientalize" it. His work can be compared to Friedrich Schleiermacher's, William James', and Rudolf Otto's attempts to "save" religion from science by searching for one, true, and pure intuitive religious experience unattainable by reason. In Suzuki's published works "everything disappears, and only an unspeakable and indescribable mystique that is similar to all other forms of mystique is left" (Hammer, 1997, p. 99). What remains is an individualistic teaching based on anecdotes and an aesthetic world-view. One can perhaps even argue that Suzuki's "pure" version of Zen was a reflection of a movement already in progress in Western societies, only with a new label.

In Europe, Suzuki came into contact with the rising field of psychoanalysis and collaborated both with Jung and with the neo-Freudian Erich Fromm. The two prominent pioneers of psychoanalysis found inspiration in statements from Suzuki, such as, "Zen liberates all the energies properly and naturally stored in each of us which are in ordinary circumstances cramped and distorted so that they find no adequate channel for activity" and "Zen [...] wants us to open a `third eye,' as Buddhists call it, to the hitherto undreamed-of region shut away from us through our own ignorance" (Suzuki, 1956, p. 3). In his preface to Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1960), Jung writes about the unconscious as the total potential nature of man. It is all there inside us if only we could learn to be sensitive to it. As masters of our unconscious, our possibilities become cosmic. Fromm (1960), at a workshop on psychoanalysis and Buddhism attended by himself and Suzuki in 1956, went so far as to assert that the aims of Zen are in fact identical with those of psychoanalysis. Only the method is different.

Elements from Jungian psychoanalysis and Suzuki's disembedded Zen are still mixed in various teachings within today's New Age movement. These elements are, for instance, found in "humanistic psychology." Even though it was originally formulated as a critique of psychoanalysis, it contains the same basic ideas of an underdeveloped human capacity for self-realization and the intimidating effect of (Western) society. Humanistic psychology has spurred the growth of a multitude of alternative therapies where meditation techniques are mixed with "oriental" mysticism (Hammer, 1997, p. 72).

It seems to us that it is a psychoanalytical reinterpretation of Zen in particular that Tornstam makes his comparison with. In fact, when he conjures up the image of a Zen Buddhist, he refers directly to Fromm's Suzuki-inspired attempts to link psychoanalysis with Zen Buddhism in 1956 (Tornstam, 1989, p. 59).

In conclusion, gerotranscendence and psychoanalysis are not only linked in Scandinavian clinical practice, but also in the works of Jung, the influence on Jung's work by Suzuki's Zen Buddhism. Tornstam's search for an alternative and more positive understanding of aging seems to have brought these elements together in gerotranscendence theory's new image of old age.

7. The re-enchantment of aging

Considering its empirical weaknesses and New Age parallels one can ask why gerotranscendence theory has been able to make an impact in the care professions and in gerontology. In discussing this matter, we want to suggest that the introduction of the theory coincides with a search for a re-enchanted aging.

According to Weber (1990/1934), modern Western societies can be distinguished from traditional societies by their rationalism and secularism. The scientization and professionalization of human projects have disregarded existential issues, and consequently the world has been deprived of its enchantment. We suggest that gerotranscendence has had an impact on gerontology because it offers a new and re-enchanting perspective on the rationalized and professionalized processes of modern aging. The attempts to re-enchant aging can be compared to other, similar utopian New Age projects to re-enchant existential issues, for instance, Jung's project to re-enchant the disenchanted human spirit back from the natural sciences (see Noll, 1995). Re-enchanted aging moves away from the idea of aging as a depressing and declining trajectory leading to individual incapacitation and decrepitation and the view that old people are a burden on society. Instead aging becomes a positive, qualitative development towards a more profound and satisfied state of mind and being.

In this sense gerotranscendence theory is a solution to one of the fundamental issues of modern aging -- the identification of a positive old age that does not deny decay and dependence.

American historian Thomas R. Cole (1997) describes how mid-life values like independence, personal success and good health gained supremacy over the entire life course during the Victorian era. With a new understanding of God as a rational judge of human lives, midlife became the period in life when people qualified for their salvation or damnation. As a result old age was deprived of its mystical and religious content, and split in two apparently controllable parts: A success version characterized by self-reliance, health, natural death and salvation, and a failure version characterized by disease, dependency, premature death and damnation (Cole, 1997, p. 162). According to Cole, gerontology has so far been unable to free itself from this legacy. Instead it has combined attempts to prove the value of old age by emphasizing health, activity, and independence with the production of scientific results showing that old people fail to live up to mid-life standards, and an interest in the hardships and failures of aging. At its best, old age has become a copy of mid-life, adding youthful lifestyle, wealth, and consumption as values of success. Dependence and decay have been decoupled from successful aging (Cohen, 1988; Featherstone & Hepworth, 1995). Cole suggests that a way to break up the success/failure parameter is to acknowledge that aging takes place in different ways and develop alternative dimensions of aging such as "wisdom" and "spiritual growth."

During the last decades several attempts have also been made to reframe aging as a stage of life with positive dimensions. A focus on the humanities and culture of aging has led a quest for positive development outside the dominating mid-life perspective (Chinen, 1985; Cole, Van Tassel, & Kastenbaum, 1992; Ronnstrom, 1998). In a narrative approach to wisdom, Randall and Kenyon (2000) suggest that losses that typically occur in old age may promote insight and spiritual development. The popularity of Life Review and reminiscence work as tools for personal growth is another example of the new focus on the possibility of a unique development in old age. In popular gerontology individuals are now being presented with a possibility of personal growth and of reaching a peak of life after retirement, where the lack of social roles in old age is providing individuals with opportunities rather than problems (Laslett, 1989). (7) In this context, gerotranscendence theory can be seen as an important contribution, as it emphasizes difference and positive development in old age without denying that many old people are frail and dependent. This revaluation of development and decay is also exemplified by Joan M. Erikson's personal comments on the theory: "I am profoundly moved, for I am growing old and feel shabby, and suddenly great riches present themselves and enlighten every part of my body and reach out to beauty everywhere" (Erikson, 1997, p. 127).

8. The disenchantment of wisdom

Returning to the paradigmatic ambivalence of the theory, we propose that Tornstam has not just brought a spiritual dimension into gerontology. In the process he has also adapted and subordinated phenomenological concepts into a rational positivist framework, operationalizing metaphysical entities such as "mystery in life" into a mail survey statement to be interpreted as a point on a scale (Tornstam, 1997b).

What if it turns out that growing old does not in itself lead to empirically measurable "wisdom"? This is one of the conclusions of a German research project called "Wisdom and Lifespan Development" (Staudinger, 1999). The project operationalized "wisdom" into five criteria and tested their correlation with age. Results show that "wisdom" is related to characteristics located at the interface between personality and intelligence rather than age. In comparison with gerotranscendence theory, the German project is more internally consistent. It does not rest on an alternative ontology like Tornstam's Zen consciousness but actually aims at contrasting scientific findings with folklore.

Still, Tornstam and the German project share the common presumption that human "wisdom" can be categorized and objectively measured. As Staudinger's (1999) article shows, the result may be that the idea of a special "wisdom" in old age is demystified and falsified. The breakdown of "wisdom" into operational components that may be repressed or developed, perhaps with professional help, also promotes the medicalization of old age that has become so emblematic of modern gerontology. Doctors and nurses may prescribe contemplation and life-review therapy in order for their "patients" to achieve optimal human development or compensate for mental deterioration.

9. In conclusion: weak but positive

Regarding gerotranscendence theory as an alternative paradigm, it is described as part of a phenomenological discourse but applied in a positivist context (compare Tornstam, 1992, p. 323). The results of empirical studies have so far been problematic and contradictory, and have failed to produce any clear evidence of a gerotranscendent "wisdom" in old age that is qualitatively different from other stages of life. To some extent gerotranscendence theory could even be situated within the activity approach in gerontology, in which meaningful social activity and opportunities for spiritual development correlate with life satisfaction.

Despite its shortcomings and ambiguities, gerotranscendence theory is becoming increasingly popular, and mentioned as a possible theory of nursing in several Western countries. So wherein lies its attraction? The modern welfare state has enabled large numbers of old people to retire in good health and financial security. At the same time old age has increasingly become a social problem, and old-age professions as well as old people themselves are looking for counter images and novel approaches to old age and caring. Gerotranscendence theory's attempt to re-enchant aging with an "Oriental" touch probably feels intriguing and inspiring for professionals as well as many gerontologists, as it revitalizes their work, and some old people will probably find gerotranscendence theory useful in enriching their personal life.

We believe that the major problem with the theory is its essentialism. "Natural" aging is marked by gerotranscendence, and to age in the "right" way every human who grows old must experience it. This approach has created problems in the empirical studies for at least two important reasons: (1) The studies do not produce any conclusive supportive evidence. In fact, so far they rather point to a differentiated aging. (2) The empirical verification of the theory invites the statistical methods of the positivist paradigm, which are at odds with the theory's proposed phenomenological approach. The ambition to prove what old age essentially is -- in contrast to how it is socially misunderstood and obstructed -- is also the core of the normative gerontological tradition Tornstam (1992) wanted to break away from. The problems of a normative approach become evident in the context of caring and nursing, where the essentialism of gerotranscendence theory runs a risk of creating a blindness to the diversity of old people's interests and needs, and old people who do not transcend can be viewed as deviant and noncompliant. Theoretically, a solution can be to move ahead into a postmodern gerontology where the meaning of old age as a cultural and contextual phenomenon is highlighted (Cole et al., 1992). Thus, we suggest that gerotranscendence theory should not be a theory of what old age really is, but rather what it can become.

Hakan Jonson *

* Corresponding author. E-mail address: (H. Jonson)

(1) In our own argument, we will use the term "Western" for convenience. One of our main points in this review is against the essentialism of gerotranscendence theory, and we do not mean to suggest that there is a "Western" essence.

(2) The gerontology research group affiliated with Uppsala University in Sweden, which is actively working with the theory, has a website that had been visited more than 7000 times between January 31, 1996 and June 1, 1998. The Alta Vista Web-Browser turned up 24 matches for "gerotranscendence" in August 2000. As a prominent professor at the universities of Copenhagen, Denmark (1987-1992) and Uppsala, Sweden (from 1992), Tornstam has been an influential force in Scandinavian gerontology. During the 1990s, he received government grants to develop gerotranscendence theory and theoretically related projects. A photocopied compilation of 11 internationally published articles and book chapters (Tornstarm, 1989, 1992, 1994a, 1996a, 1996b, 1997a, 1997b, 1997c, 1999a, 1999b; Tornstam & Tornqvist, 2000) has been disseminated among Swedish gerontologists. These observations indicate that the theory is globally accessible, used in some contexts, and certainly not unknown.

(3) These kinds of clinical articles are published in Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences (3), International Journal of Nursing Studies (1), Journal of Advanced Nursing (1), Scandinavian Journal of Work Environment and Health (1).

(4) Two chapters in the latest editions of Tornstam's (1994b)Aldrandets socialpsykologi (The Social Psychology of Aging) (40 pages in all) contain a critical discussion of the gerontological paradigm and a detailed presentation of the theory of gerotranscendence.

(5) The concept of "double jeopardy" has been discussed by Dowd and Bengtson (1978) and describes the interaction of two problematic conditions, that of old age and that of being an immigrant. Ahmadi and Tornstam suggest that the two conditions may interact in a positive way.

(6) Tornstam's (1973) dissertation is a brilliant example of the use of surveys and statistical methods of analysis. Compare also Tornstam (1978). In 1982, Tornstam used the concept "operative cross-disciplinary research" (operativ tvarvetenskap) to describe the normative fundament of a large research project that he was co-heading (Tornstam, 1982).

(7) Although Laslett's division between a third and a fourth age partly reinforces a distinction between healthy and dependent aging, the concepts still have a potential to highlight positive difference in old age without denying decay (compare with Midwinther, 1991, p. 4).


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Atchley, R. C. (1997). Everyday mysticism: spiritual development in later adulthood. Journal of Adult Development, 4 (2), 123-134.

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Hakan Jonson, Jan Arne Magnusson
School of Social Work, Lund University, Box 23, 221 00 Lund, Sweden
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Title Annotation:alteration of consciousness
Author:Jonson, Hakan; Magnusson, Jan Arne
Publication:Journal of Aging Studies
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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