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Aging as emerging brilliance: advancing Rogers' unitary theory of aging.

Key Words: Ageing, Science of Unitary Human Beings, Negentropy, Sage-ing, Croning

Every 50 seconds, another baby boomer celebrates their 50th birthday. Baby boomers were born between 1947 and 1964, and this year the first wave of 80 million baby boomers reached their late fifties. At the same time that great numbers of us are entering "later life," life expectancy is increasing unprecedented heights. In 1900, a twenty year old had only a 52 percent chance of surviving to age 65. At 65, an individual who survived could expect to live only another 11.7 years. In the year 2000, 83 percent of 20 year olds can expect to survive 65 years. Furthermore, today those reaching 65 can expect to live an additional 17.5 years. The remaining life expectancy after 65 could even reach 24 years by the end of the 21st century (The Institute for Research on Women & Gender, 2002).

While an entropic image of aging continues to be the prevailing understanding of the aging process, research on the aging process suggests otherwise. With a coming "age wave," aging baby boomers will redefine the meaning of later life just as they transformed images of middle age. The new view of aging emerging further corroborates Rogers' original notion of aging as a negentropic process of increasing diversity, creativity, and innovation.

Aging as a Shipwreck

Throughout most of history and across many cultures, "elders" have been revered for their wisdom, accomplishments, and ability to endure (Shahar, 2003). However, today, Western culture seems blind to the beauty, brilliance, and significance of later life. In contemporary Western society, youth is worshipped, billions are spent in the effort to deny aging, and challenges abound for elders who are in or trying to reenter the workforce (Shahar, 2003). Ageism, like other stereotypes and forms of discrimination, has no basis in fact. Biases against aging are so deeply ingrained in our culture that negative attitudes toward the elderly at best, unintentionally creep into conversations, writings, and entertainment and at worse takes the form of deliberate discrimination reinforced by public policy, institutions, and the media. There remain abundant examples in popular culture such as birthday cards, TV programs, advertising, and entertainment that perpetuate false ideas about the elderly. Colloquialisms as "geezer," "old goat," "old maid," "old fogies," "old bag," and "dirty old man" are pervasive in everyday speech. Common euphemisms such as "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," "there is no fool like an old fool," "age is a sickness from which everyone must die," "age is a troublesome guest" are a few examples that serve to perpetuate negative stereotypes of older persons.

Deeply embedded within ageism is the idea that aging is an entropic progressive process of decline, a joyless winding down, replete with illness, disability, impotency, uselessness and mental decline. Just as Chateaubriand long ago declared "old age is a shipwreck" (Booth, 1992, p. 48.), aging continues to be predominately viewed as inevitable decline, deterioration, and decay (Friedan, 1993). Ageism fosters stereotypes that discourage older adults from participating actively in their change process, work world, social and political arenas, and cultural pursuits. Chopra (1989) points out that the decline of vigor in later life is largely a result of people expecting to decline.

Interestingly, cultural stereotypes of ageism serve to accelerate the body's biological aging processes. Schachter-Shalomi (1995) notes:

"Aging itself isn't the problem. It's the images that we hold about it, our cultural expectation, that cause our problems. To have a more positive old age, we must change our aging paradigm" (p. 14).

Rogers' Negentropic View of Aging

As early as 1970, Rogers began to question the idea that aging was an entropic process. In Chapter 15, she stated "life's negentropic qualities portend innovation and growing complexity" (Rogers, 1970, p. 114) and raised a number of questions such as "do human field boundaries take on increased definitiveness in the process of growth?" (p. 113), "is the speed with which time is perceived to be passing an index of the speed with which the aging process is occurring?" (p. 115), and "are there patterns of variability in sleep-wake rhythms that correlate with ... the aging process, with developmental patterns?"(p. 118). As Rogers refined the principle of helicy and the theory of accelerating evolution, her description of the aging process took on greater clarity. In Rogers' 1980 publication, she put forward the notion that aging was "a continuously creative process directed toward growing diversity of field pattern and organization. It is not a running down" stated Rogers (1980, p. 336). In subsequent publications, Rogers (1992) continued to assert "aging of the unitary human field is not a running down. Rather, field pattern becomes increasingly diverse as older people need less sleep" and that "a non-linear domain points up the invalidity of chronological age as a basis for differentiating change" (p. 32).

Despite Rogers' revolutionary ideas, there is a dearth of recent writing by Rogerian scholars that explores, advances, sheds new light, provides new insight, or renews Rogers' original ideas about the aging process. Katch (1983) found beginning support for Rogers' negentropic view of in the literature in citing the works of Neugarten, Strumpf, and Ebersole & Hess. Neugarten (1979) explained how with the passage of time life becomes more enriched and complex. Strumpf (1978) argued data supported a negentropic view of aging rather than progressive decline. Ebersole & Hess (1981) asserted that aging was a time of unlimited growth potential. Cowling (1990) has illustrated how pattern, rather than chronological age is a more appropriate marker for human development.

Unitary Aging

The idea of unitary aging encompasses both the notions of negentropy and accelerating evolution. Although Dr. Rogers wrote her views on aging in the 1970s and 1980s, recent research has provided support for her revolutionary views on aging. Support for the idea of accelerating evolution abounds. James Gleick's (1999) book "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything" provides a comprehensive overview of the ever acceleration of human-environmental rhythms from faster means of travel, ever faster computers, accelerating knowledge development, and faster forms of communication such as email and "sound bits." Instant coffee, instant meals, drive thorough, prefab construction, take-out, multitasking, and channel surfing are just a few examples of the accelerating evolution. Furthermore, Gleick (1999), like Rogers, states "we feel the rush of time more as we grow older (p. 279).

In "The White Hole in Time: Our Future Evolution and the Meaning of Now" Russell (1992) declares "the pace of life is speeding up" and that "acceleration syndrome has become an intimate part of our lives (p. 13). "We are learning faster, growing faster, moving faster and changing faster (Russell, 1992, 45). The faster the world changes, the more we need to let go of cozy notions of what we may think the future will be like. Russell (1992) explains how accelerating change brings about increasing novelty and newness. "Creativity breeds creativity" stated Russell (1992, p. 19). Because of acceleration evolution, human development, perceptions, attitudes, thinking, and awareness will be changing faster and faster.


Increasing longevity of the human life span is yet another manifestation of accelerating evolution. The single most important fact about health and well-being of the population age 50 and older is that people are living longer. For much of human history, the average life expectancy at birth was less than 30 years. By 1900, in the United States, the average had been pushed up to 48 years. In the 20th century, nearly 30 more years were added to life expectancy, an unprecedented extension in the history of human kind. More year of life expectancy were added in the last century than from all the other increases across all prior millennia combined (Lee, 1997). During the past decade, gene research suggests that human life can be extended even further. A single-gene mutation was found in mice extending their lifespan by about 30% and also increasing their resistance to toxic chemicals (Migliaccio, et al. 1999).
 The field of ageing research
 has been completely
 transformed in the
 pastdecade.... When single
 genes are changed, animals
 that should be old stay young.
 In humans, these mutants
 would be analogous to a
 ninety year old who looks and
 feels forty-five. On this basis
 we begin to think of ageing ... can
 be cured, or at least
 postponed.... The field of
 ageing is beginning to
 explode, because so many
 are so excited about the
 prospect of searching for--and
 finding--the causes of
 aging, and maybe even the
 fountain of youth itself
 (Guarente & Kenyon, 2000).

However, it is important to note, that biases about race, class, and gender that also affects views of elderly people must be overcome for the benefits of longevity to be meaningful. For example, inequalities in terms of quality of life and life expectancy persist for elderly African-Americans, persons living below the poverty line, elderly who are divorced, widowed or never married, and those with limited savings (The Institute for Research on Women & Gender, 2002). Furthermore, the length of life matters when its duration makes a difference to the quality and value of our lives. Extended longevity calls for the development of a new awareness about the fulfillment of the human potential in later life. As the age wave crests, we need to reflect on questions about the purpose and meaning of our extended longevity. A unitary view of aging requires that health care professionals and policy makers place new emphasis on promoting and ensuring that all persons have the maximum potential for a quality and meaningful later life.

Optimistic Aging

The rising wave of aging boomers is already shattering conventional notions of what it means to grow older. Ken Dychtwald, (1990) the author of Age Wave: How the Most Important Trend to Our Time Will Change your Future and Age Power: How the 21st Century Will be Ruled by the Old (1999) predicts that as baby boomers age they will unhinge the obsolete marker of age 65 "old age" and the onset of entitlements. Instead, people will retire when they are ready and can afford to. Older people will seek meaningful employment into their 70s and 80s. Age-enhancing technologies including macro and micronutrients designed to delay aging, promote energy, relaxation, sexuality, mental alertness, endurance, recuperation, and wellness will be in demand. Customized youth extending hormones, brain enhancement herbs, vitamins, drugs, age-enhancing spa, sensory devices designed to improve vision and hearing, clothes that sense and adjust temperature differences in different body zones are just some of the technologies on the horizon for the aging population. Lifelong learning centers, such as Elderhostel, will be increasing in demand. Homes will be reengineered so that they are ergonomically appropriate for older bodies. There will be a tremendous need for health care professionals with specialized knowledge of the health and illness concerns of older adults. Financial services and the travel/leisure industry will need to be re-vamped in order to meet the needs of active and productive older adults.

Most significantly, the elder boomers are placing increasing emphasis on research that shatters the myth of entropic aging. Rogers' negentropic vision of aging calls forth positive proverbs of aging the extol the wisdom of age such as: "age before beauty," "age deserves honor," "with old men take counsel," "there is wisdom with age," "and it is good to grow old in a place where age is honored." A negentropic and optimistic view of aging requires new ways of thinking about aging such as viewing: "aging as living," "aging as education," "aging as art," "aging as a peak experience," "aging as a spiritual journey," "aging as adventure," and "aging as emerging brilliance."

New Evidence for a Model of Unitary Aging

Not only are older people living longer, but in many cases, living healthier too. In fact, the overall occurrence of disability among the aged is dropping (Singer, & Manton, 1998). Contrary to the entropic view of aging that older persons have more illness, most elders (65+) are healthy (78%) and engage in normal activities. For example, 30% of 50 to 64 year olds have no chronic condition, disability, or functional limitation and in a 1999 survey, about 35% of people age 75-84 state that they are in "excellent" or "very good" health (AARP, 2002). The MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging found that fully 25% of "successful agers" studied actually improved physical function over an eight-year period of the 10-year-long study. More than half maintained their previous high levels of function. This dramatic finding shatters the myth that losses in physical function are an inevitable manifestation of advancing age (Rowe & Kahn, 1998). "Successful agers" remain actively engaged in life and tend not to smoke, have a low fat diet, engage in at least four hours of work a day where independent judgment is used, participate in regular aerobic and light weight-bearing activity, and maintain close personal relationships with family and friends (Rowe & Kahn, 1998).

A majority of persons in later life are at least as satisfied with their lives as younger persons. Added years, often brings about deeper emotional satisfaction (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999). As persons grow older, they also tend to become more satisfied with personal relationships, learn to control their emotions more successfully, and increase available stores of useful memory. "On average, older persons are in better physical and mental health and have more freedom from pain than ever before" (The Institute for Research on Women & Gender, 2002, p. 3). Another study conducted by the National Center on Women and Aging (2002) at Brandeis University found that over 50% of women experience aging as better than they expected it to be. This holds true even for a majority of women (53%) over 80 years of age. Also, older women are no more likely than younger women to report they have a disability. In fact, women over 80 are significantly more likely to report that they are in good health than younger women (National Center on Women and Aging, 2002).

While the elderly become more vulnerable to physical ailments in later years, they also become more resilient psychologically (Gatz, Kasl-Godley, & Karel, 1996). Recent evidence suggests that the reduction in disability rates continue to decline at even a steeper rate than they did between 1994-1999 (Manton & Gu, 2001). Moreover, contrary to public perception, 60 percent of people over 80 live independently in the community (Crimmins, Reynolds, & Saito, 1999). In 1999, only 4.7% of persons in later life live in nursing homes, a decline from 5.3% in 1985. Compared with other age groups 50 and older, exercise and gardening in particular, has increased for the most people age 75 and older (AARP, 2002).

Cowling (1990) pointed out that increasing diversity among elders is a manifestation of negentropic aging. There is new evidence supporting the notion that chronological age has little meaning. The "Aging in the 21st Century Consensus Report (The Institute for Research on Women & Gender, 2002) states:
 Chronological age, the, will
 tell us less and less about the
 circumstances, needs, or
 chances for successful aging
 of an individual. Over life
 course, varied interests,
 opportunities, and other
 circumstances can result in
 even greater variability in
 health, cognition, living
 arrangements and financial
 status.... Variability in the
 course of aging and the onset
 of diseases, then, makes for
 highly diversified cohorts of
 older people the same age (p.

Therefore, within a unitary perspective, each person is unique and it is the unfolding pattern that needs to be the focus of pattern manifestation appraisal and appreciation and voluntary mutual patterning.

Another major manifestation for a negentropic or unitary view of aging is the research demonstrating, contrary to popular myth, that most elders retain their normal mental abilities, including the ability to learn and remember. While it is true that the speed of cognitive functioning is slowed by aging, thinking more slowly should not be equated with thinking poorly. The ability to solve problems of everyday life (what some refer to as wisdom) remains as sharp in the very old as in the middle aged (Bates & Staudinger, 2000). In one major longitudinal study, more than 50% of the people followed from 60-80 years showed no deterioration in cognitive abilities, and 8% demonstrated measurable gains in performance on tests designed to measure thinking prowess (Schaie, 1990).

Enhancing the Aging Process

Today there are more than 100,000 age-enhancing research projects underway in numerous disciplines in all corners of the world. As the boomers age, their lifelong obsession with youth will be a major driving force toward the development of new technologies. Dychtwald (1999) anticipates that by the year 2020 more than 90 percent of surviving boomer elders will have their life expectancy impacted by emerging life enhancing technologies such as "super-nutrition, gene therapy, bionics, and organ cloning. To meet the needs of tomorrow's elders, below is a list of just a few of the new markets Dychtwald (1999) describes that will emerge:

* A new science of biomarkers using genomics that become key indicators of an individual's health, immunologic fortitude, mental vitality, and potential for longevity;

* Nutraceuticals including age-enhancing appetizing drinks, meals, snacks, and supplements engineered with macro- and micronutrients that promote energy, relaxation, sexuality, mental alertness, endurance, recuperation, wellness, and other desired conditions;

* Customized youth-extending hormone therapeutic that will slow down the aging process;

* Mind enhancement herbs, vitamins, drug, acupuncture, visual stimulation, software downloads, and mind exercises that help prevent dementia, better memory, and stimulate higher intelligence;

* Age-enhancing spas that offer intensive revitalization programs, ranging from stress reduction, toxin purging, and metabolic adjustments to muscle toning and nervous system tune-ups;

* Elderhostel-style life-long learning programs at colleges, universities, churches, and community centers on cable TV and the Internet that include both vocational retraining for older adults and vocational instruction on the arts, music, cooking, public speaking, etc.;

* Mature employment and career transition coordinators who would assist maturing adults in career and life style transitions by navigating through a network of job opportunities with minimum hassle;

* Audiovideography production services that create documentary-like videoportraits for ordinary individuals telling the story of their long lives and capturing their views, philosophies, and lifestyles.

However, it is important to assure that the efforts to promote a so called "positive aspects of aging" to be as disguised efforts to restore youth, but rather be attempts to enhance and appreciate growing old as fundamental to human development. Nursing can have a vital role in creating and offering services that enhance the aging process and quality of life of person's in later life.


A negentropic view of aging calls forth new images and new ways to participant in the aging process. Two examples that re-envision the aging process are croning and sage-ing. Croning is the process of becoming an active wise woman (Walker, 1985). Croning can begin at any age, but is particularly relevant for women 45 and over. Crone is a term used to describe an ancient archetype, an aspect of the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone), and the third phase of a woman's life (Walker, 1985). Women who call themselves a crone are willing to acknowledge their age, wisdom, and power. Through conscious self-definition, a crone helps reverse hundreds of years of ageism, oppression, and degradation. Crones activate their potential as wisdom carriers and guardians of the future by learning the ancient heritage of crones, honoring the helical seasons of the life cycle, and respecting the integrality of human beings with the universe. For nearly 30,000 years, older women were strong, powerful sources of wisdom and were honored and respected in their communities. Crones apply their wisdom to intentionally bring about change that enhances the lives of women while leaving a legacy for future generations (Walker, 1985). Crones embrace the healing power of women and work to harvest the wisdom from their life experiences to bring about a compassionate world and empower women to dismantle ageism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and other hierarchical structures that create imaginary boundaries that falsely separate people from each other.


Schachter-Shalomi & Miller (1995) re-envisioned aging in a way that is both consistent with and expands the understanding and implications of Rogers' unitary view of aging. He proposes an alternative to viewing aging as inevitable diminishment, disengagement, waning vigor, lowered self-esteem, and social uselessness by viewing aging as a late-life developmental process of sage-ing. Sage-ing is a process that helps "transform the downward arc of aging into the upward arc of expanded consciousness that crowns an elder's life with meaning and purpose (Schachter-Shalomi & Miller, 1995, p. 7-8). Sage-ing is further described as a process that enables older people to become physically vital, spiritually radiant and socially responsible. Sage-ing brings about more adventure, passion, mystery and meaning into an elder's life.

Within a sage-ing or unitary perspective of aging, elderhood becomes a time when elders work as mentors to share their wisdom and transmit a legacy to future generations. Elders would not be disconnected from families, rather because of a new appreciation for their wisdom, elders would be seen as the mentors, story-tellers, vocational counselors, and conservators of family traditions. Elders share their wisdom to help heal families, communities, and the planet as a means to create a more peaceful, compassionate, and harmonious global community. Sages use life review and journaling can be used to help them look at and appreciate their lives, find meaning, and gain self-understanding, and share with others the wisdom gained through years of life experience (Butcher & Buckwalter, 2002; Schachter-Shalomi & Miller, 1995). Forgiveness work can be used to heal relationships and let go of grudges.

Later life is a time for "harvesting" the fruits of one's lifetime experience. When we "harvest, we consciously recognize and celebrate the contributions we have made in our career and family life (Schachter-Shalomi & Miller, 1995, p. 53). Harvesting is a time of appreciating the friendships we have nurtured, the young people we have mentored, the wider involves on behalf of the community we have given to society and the planet. Embracing sage-ing as a process expands the artificial boundaries of aging toward new horizons of unlimited potential.

The Rise of Unitary Aging

We see vibrant examples of a new style of aging all around us. Former U.S. Senator Robert Dole extolling the benefits of Viagra and Senator John Glenn, who at the age of 77, returned to outer space. Alan Greenspan, at the age of 76, continues to over see the nation's economy. Well into their 60s and 70s, Sean Connery, Paul Neuman, and Jack Nickelson continue to find meaningful roles in major motion pictures and are considered "sex symbols." Dozens of rock bands from the 1960s and 1970s, many whose members are in their 50s and 60s continue to perform and record new music to sold out concert arenas.

Another example of the possibilities of vitality in later life is the work of Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife. Now the author of 13 books, including The Virtues of Aging (1998), as the founder of the Carter Center, he travels the world and works to impact public policy, attempts to facilitate democracy, protect human rights, and prevent disease. He and his wife regularly volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that helps needy people in the United States and in other countries renovate and build homes for themselves. In 1991, he launched The Atlanta Project (TAP), a communitywide effort to solve social problems associated with poverty. At age 80, his many activities promoting peace and human betterment worldwide led to the former President Carter being awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. Carter (1998) states that he and Rosalynn are "almost as active now as we have ever been, writing, teaching, caring for our farmland and personal finances, serving the Carter Center, with its multiple projects all around the world" (p. 76).

Martha E. Rogers is another exemplar of the potential vibrancy of aging. Martha Rogers lived her theory of aging. After her retirement, she maintained an office at New York University and continued to teach, develop her theory and mentor a generation of future nursing leaders, faculty, and students. She published more that 30 articles after her 65th birthday and presented at more than 100 conferences around the world disseminating her views on nursing and the Science of Unitary Human Beings. In fact, Rogers developed most of the advances of the Science of Unitary Human Beings after her retirement from New York University. Rogers' life and her work serve as a catalyst for envisioning elders as agents of evolution and innovation.

Embracing a unitary view of aging would mean that more nurses may be more likely to choose gerontology as area of study and practice. The impeding nursing shortage due partly to nurses retiring early perhaps could be eased somewhat by nurses being able and willing to choose to practice longer into their later years. Practicing nurses interested in caring for older adults would be actively involved in creating, offering, and managing services that are designed to help elders remain active, involved, connected, productive, and healthy. Enlightened nursing homes would be owned and managed by nurses devoted to ensuring a quality of care that enables elders to live in comfort and dignity and to continue to flourish and regenerate. Nurses would be resources for people in retirement homes, long-term care, assisted living, and other alternative communities offering programs to assist elders in creating meaning, synthesizing wisdom, and continuing to grow.

As the possibility of unitary aging takes root, an extraordinary future awaits us in later life. Later life no longer will be feared as a time of dispiritedness (Butcher, 1996) but as an opportunity for growth and service to humanity. Indeed, we are all jewels of humanity, shaped, buffed, and polished by time and our experiences. As precious gems, we all have enduring value and beauty as our multiple facets reflect light in ways that flash brilliance. To all possible crones and sages, a fulfilling life imbued with splendor, meaning, accomplishment, active involvement, growth, adventure, wisdom, experience, compassion glory, and brilliance awaits.


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Howard Karl Butcher, RN; PhD, APRN, BC

Assistant Professor and

John A. Hartford Foundation Building Academic Geriatric Nursing Capacity

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Author:Butcher, Howard Karl
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Date:Jan 1, 2003
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