I have been teaching subjects addressing the need for a more proactive aging process and adult psychological development in a “Learning in Retirement” program for the past eleven years. I have observed the behavior and heard the conversations of hundreds of older adults over this period. Based on these observations, there is clearly a large developmental gap between most older people who believe they have no control over their own aging process (with the exception perhaps of diet and exercise) and who are “hoping” to stabilize their lives for as long as they can – and a smaller but growing segment of older people who are motivated to be more proactive in their aging process, and lead a dynamically changing lifestyle in the last third of life.
Similar to James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (or Spiritual) Development, and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, I believe there are at least six stages of “Aging Development” – each more proactive, capable, and motivated to build upon prior stages to discover one’s unique “potential” during the last third of life. The Model assumes that optimal aging involves a systemic growth or developmental process that not only allows the individual to become more self-aware, autonomous, adaptable to changing life conditions, compassionate, and accepting of self, others, and whatever life throws at them – but also the discovery of new meaning and purpose that is both personally satisfying, as well as making the world a better place for all to live.
The purpose of this stage theory is not only to shed light on the necessary levels of development a person must pass through in order to age optimally in today’s complex and rapidly changing world, but it also allows us to understand where we are in relation to others, where we want to be, and what the characteristics of our development will most probably look like – like signposts along the side of the road. My students immediately picked up on the possibility of a person using this model to inflate the perception of their own development, and use this inflated self-image to feel like they are better than others. This is clearly a characteristic of the ego we are trying to get away from in this model, but it is perhaps natural to feel this way in its early stages. Inquiring into this feeling, at all stages in our development, will provide us with yet another opportunity for growth.
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know About Aging
Most of the existing theories of aging in our society (Dis-Engagement, Continuity, or Activity), based on the actual observation of a cross-section of the older population, fall into only the first two stages of this Model – pointing out the need for increased education and training in how one might age optimally, and what our potential actually is as we get older. There are currently very few “structures” in our society that provide any sort of support for this more proactive and motivated approach to aging. A structure in this case would involve having a supportive community – real or virtual – to go, hang out, and learn with other like-minded people who also want to optimize their aging process. This is why I have started the Dynamic Aging Program at OLLI – in order to begin the creation of such structures.
To be fair with those people who fall into one or more of the existing theories of aging, we must first accept the fact that our society does not yet support any theory of aging that advocates a strongly proactive and systemic approach to one’s own aging process. So, most people simply don’t know what they don’t know about their own aging process, and have grown up without any understanding of the possibilities we are presented with as we grow older.
Negative and Positive Feedback Loops
Instead, the emphasis in our society seems to be on physical and cognitive decline, and most recently on what we can do to offset much of this decline through exercise, good nutrition, and finding new sources of mental stimulation. The goal in this case is to minimize the negative physical and mental effects of a natural aging process for as long as we can, rather than continue to grow, develop, and become the best person we can be in our lifetime. This more reactive approach to aging is based on “negative feedback” (“Uh oh, I have been forgetting a lot of things lately – maybe I need to start doing brain-training games in my spare time”) which strives to regain stability and equilibrium, whereas a proactive approach to optimal aging is largely based on positive feedback loops (“Wow, I really like becoming more self-aware and mindful of everything I do – I think I’m going to practice even harder next week”) – which lead to instability, expansion, and growth.
A negative feedback loop is created when we notice a decline in our physical or mental functioning, and then undertake a set of actions to restore prior normal functioning. As we age, this can become a constant attempt to regain some form of stability in a person’s life; as they increase their exercise routine, eat more organically, play “brain-training” games on the computer, and other things. The problem is this person is constantly playing catch-up in a war against aging where there are no winners. There is also no joy in this process that I can think of, and any gains we make are short-lived and dependent on an ever-increasing level of self-care. The individual could also activate an array of defense mechanisms to avoid even thinking about the loss of their capabilities (and many people do this), but of course this just resorts in a more rapid decline.
A positive feedback loop is created when we see ourselves progressing at something we feel is important and, as a result of the good feelings this generates, become increasingly motivated to work even harder towards our goals. Positive feedback creates a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating, and self-energizing set of behaviors which lead to continuous growth and self-expansion. The greater motivation and higher quality of life this “Progress Principle” encourages is well-documented in the field of psychology, and is one of the guiding principles in the dynamic aging process.
Social Barriers to Aging Dynamically
From my experience, the critical juncture in this model for an older adult occurs when there is an awakening to the possibilities inherent in the aging process, and the individual begins to understand there is more to optimal aging than simply a healthy lifestyle. This transition to a more proactive and self-motivated manner of aging should seem natural to most people but, since our society doesn’t generally support a person’s need for greater self-awareness and personal development, most individuals seem to simply shrug off their underlying unsettledness, and attempt to coast through their final years into old age – never becoming motivated to do anything proactive about their aging process other than diet and exercise. They see that no one else they know is aging dynamically, so they suspect that anything more than what they are already doing will just involve a greater effort, for very little reward.
The field of sociology has established that, to a large extent, humans perceive themselves as they perceive others are perceiving them – especially a group of “significant others” with whom we are most closely associated. In other words, this tendency to see ourselves as we perceive others see us (kind of like a distorted mirror) results into a need to fit in and be thought of favorably by others. This need for social connections has been very well documented in human psychology, and is probably a genetic trait passed on from our Hunter/Gatherer days where the clan or tribe were essential for our survival. Without the support and protection of the others, we would die. However, this neediness today is like an anchor around our neck when it comes to aging optimally. It keeps us mired in the mass consciousness of those around us, and is probably the greatest factor keeping us from reaching for our potential as we get older.
However, on a positive note, there are a growing number of older adults who are awakening to the truth and wisdom of partaking in a more proactive aging process – where the goal is not simply to hang onto a certain level of cognitive and physical functioning, but to expand and explore the hidden potential we each have within us. I believe this is evidenced by the success of the Dynamic Aging Program I am currently teaching at OLLI at Furman, and the enthusiasm most of my students have for this process. And, they have created their own group of significant others to give them support for this process.
A Stage Theory of Aging Development
I believe optimum aging is both an intelligence and a developmental process, similar to cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual, and moral development, for the following reasons:
• Optimal aging requires a different form of intelligence that can be developed, perceived, acquired through readings or teachings, learned from experience, or intuited by an individual for the purpose of applying this knowledge to one’s own aging process. It involves – for the purpose of aging optimally – a basic understanding of the science behind optimal aging, greater mindfulness, continuously higher levels of personal development and self-awareness, improved reasoning, problem-solving and planning capabilities, the ability to think abstractly but realistically about one’s own future, the understanding of complex and often conflicting ideas, and acceptance of all people and things that cannot be changed.
• Going through each stage appears to be necessary for the emergence of the next stage of development, which includes but transcends the sum of all prior stages.
• As in emotional, spiritual, and moral development, there is a strong correlation between aging development, and overall psychological/cognitive development.
• At lower stages of development the person is more unaware or close-minded regarding their inherent potential, more closely associated with the goals and thinking of the mass consciousness, more self-centered, more afraid, and less likely to be proactive about accomplishing most things of importance in their life.
• At higher stages of development the individual is increasingly: (1) aware of their emerging potential, (2) autonomous and less closely associated with the thinking of the mass consciousness, (3) operating from an open-systems viewpoint, (4) more likely to make inclusive decisions based on the welfare of a larger number of people and the world in general, (5) less fearful, (6) functioning with higher internal self-esteem, and (7) more proactive in their own aging development.
A brief summary of my stage theory of aging development is as follows:
Stage #1 – Passive Aging:
Perhaps not so surprisingly, most retired persons I know seem to fall into this stage of their aging development. At this level, the individual passively accepts their own natural aging process, and does little or nothing to offset the effects of physical and cognitive decline. I have also noticed that at this stage most people have adopted these additional characteristics:
• They are largely unconscious to their inner world of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and/or the impact their behavior has on others.
• They are pleasure-seeking: attuned to the instant gratification caused by the release of certain hormones and neurotransmitters to the limbic system and other parts of the brain.
• They identify strongly with the mass consciousness and its ideas about aging.
• They are extremely self-centered: with a strong attachment to their existing self-concept, and the frequent use of defense mechanisms to avoid cognitive dissonance and personal growth.
• They tend to withdraw to a more stable, lower energy interaction with their environment (i.e., same people, same ideas, same ways of doing things, etc.), which seems to provide an illusion of control over their lives.
Stage #2 – Active Aging:
At this stage, the individual has become aware of the need to keep physically active, improve their nutrition, and might even grow to understand the potential positive effects of meditation, yoga, etc. This doesn’t mean they do these things to any great degree, nor does it mean they care enough about these things to learn about them and implement them optimally based on their lifestyle, body type, personality, physical limitations, etc. I have observed that people at this stage commonly view exercise, and an occasionally healthy diet, as a means to offset the negative effects of life’s pleasures (fine dining, alcohol, etc.). Overall, the individual:
• Is still very self-centered and pleasure-seeking.
• Has no concept or understanding of a more systemic and optimal approach to their own aging process.
• Has little or no motivation to proactively understand their own aging process (beyond exercise and diet), or create for themselves a higher quality of life than they are already living.
• Lives exclusively in the external world of people, things, worries, and pleasures. There is little self-awareness or inclination for internal growth.
• Is still fearful of change, and stability-seeking by nature.
• Strongly identifies with the perceived respect and recognition they receive from a group of “significant others” – who are also pleasure-seeking and equally lacking the motivation to proactively optimize their own aging process.
Stage #3 – Proactive Aging:
At this stage there is an awakening to the need for additional internal work and self-awareness in order to improve our quality of life. We realize that much of our boredom or discontent stems from early childhood wounds and conditioning, restrictive beliefs and perspectives, self-imposed limitations, superego, and the use of defense mechanisms to avoid seeing the truth about ourselves. There is a greater understanding that we must go through a developmental process to become aware of how these internal structures constrain or limit who we really are, as well as cause a good deal of unhappiness in our lives. This is a transitional stage where the person decides to take a more proactive stance towards their own aging process, find new meaning and purpose, and improve their quality of life.
In addition to a greater commitment to a healthy diet and age-appropriate exercise the individual will usually:
• Adopt new practices such as positivity, brain-training, and stress reduction – but still not in a systemic manner.
• Realize to some extent that “we are what we think” and become more mindful of their own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, sensations, reactions, and impact of their behavior on others.
• Seek out new information on optimal aging with the intent of improving their quality of life.
• Understand that societal views on aging, and the attitudes of those closest to them, act as constraints on the ability to achieve their potential.
• Develop a more systemic view of the world, along with a need to engage more mindfully and meaningfully with their environment.
• Begin to change more easily and at a deeper level as they experience cognitive dissonance in their interactions with the environment.
Stage #4 – Systemic Aging:
At this stage we realize there are not just a few more things we can “do” to age optimally, but instead we must adopt a systemic approach to aging, and improve the quality and quantity of our interactions in order to maximize our opportunities for growth and development. True meaning and purpose is understood to involve a continuous and emergent personal growth process that allows us to not only develop our own unique potential as a human being, but also make it possible to positively affect the growth process of others around us – and the world in general.
To do this, we must systemically shift our “intentionality” (which focuses our energy and efforts) away from a non-systemic, externally focused, societally driven, and a relatively comfortable engagement between ourselves and the environment – towards a state of “dynamic instability” – where we are mindfully and meaningfully engaging with ourselves and the environment, on a regular basis, through our interactions with new people, ideas, and ways of doing things. With this shift in our intentionality we will constantly be pushing back the edges of our comfort zone, and experience a continuous process of rapidly emerging growth and development.
Critical to this dynamic systems perspective is the understanding that discomfort, obstacles, cognitive dissonance, injuries, emotional pain, and other experiences previously avoided or defended against can all be a catalyst for personal growth and development, and must therefore be embraced from a state of mindful presence and inquiry.
Stage #5 – Dynamic Aging:
At this stage we are now consistently operating from a state of dynamic instability – characterized by a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating cycle of continuous growth and development, enhanced and escalated by a highly interactive and energetic engagement with our environment. Our ability to increasingly learn more about ourselves, and our chosen system arena, is improved through mindfulness and a growing self-awareness of our past conditioning and self-imposed limitations. Additional learning opportunities are created through risk-taking, experimentation, the testing of boundaries, and consistently operating on the “edge” of our capabilities, skills, and comfort zone.
Dynamic instability results in the de-stabilization and increasing flexibility of our cognitive structures, assumptions, beliefs, perspectives, and self-concept – so that personal change does not have to be forced or self-imposed, but instead more easily emerges from the interaction of the whole person with their environment. This type of change is adaptive, continuous, occurs seemingly without effort, and is in alignment with the needs imposed by our aging bodies and dynamically changing surroundings.
This process of continuous emergent growth, learning, and development – in spite of the physical problems associated with aging – is our most effective defense against physical and cognitive decline, while also greatly improving the quality of our lives through the “Progress Principle” in action. And, it will ultimately result in increasing levels of internal self-esteem, which is a pre-requisite for the self-actualization we are seeking in the final stage of the model.
Stage #6 – Aging Mastery:
“Mastery” is not often a word we use in relation to the aging process. Mastery involves the continuous learning, and greater understanding of a subject, with the intention of applying this knowledge to become the very best at one’s chosen field of endeavor. Since optimal aging requires more than just a book understanding of the subject and years of experience, the mastery we are trying to achieve more closely resembles Abraham Maslow’s ideas on self-actualization – which is based on a process of personal development beyond a mature ego and societal standards, towards consistently greater levels of self-understanding, differentiation and integration, purpose/meaning, self-motivation, authenticity, awareness of one’s unique potential, and integrity.
Becoming a master of one’s own aging process does not guarantee a longer lifespan or that things will always be wonderful, but it does improve our ability to accept things just as they are – or change our thoughts, moods, pre-conceptions, beliefs, and perspectives about our self and the world in general – to improve the quality of life for ourselves, others, and the world in general. We will experience a greater feeling of interconnection with other people and the world around us. We are more likely to see the need for social action and change – regardless of what other people around us think. We will have a complete range of emotions, minimal self or societally imposed restrictions on our thoughts and actions, and exhibit a complete congruence between our self-concept and behavior. We will become energized by a continuous series of internal and external interactions, self-motivated to engage in an open-ended, largely unpredictable, and continuous growth process, and consistently align our actions/interactions with a higher purpose.
This stage in the model is open-ended in the sense there are probably an infinite number of higher stages of development a person can aspire to, but the numbers of real life examples become much fewer and harder to find as we progress.
Models are only successful as a learning device if they reflect a greater truth and illuminate a subject in some new and/or better way for the student. Based on my class’ reaction to this model, it offers a different and interesting perspective on a subject that is only obscure to a majority of people because it is not taught in our school systems, it defies the use of scientific methodology to understand it, and it has not yet become common social knowledge. Like other stage theories it can be confusing, because each of us might experience several of these stages during a single day. However, we will also each have a more or less consistent set-point – where our understanding and behavior are the same, and becomes almost habitual around the characteristics of a particular stage.
Like other stage theories of development, it is extremely difficult for a person to truly understand more than one stage beyond what they are currently experiencing. However, since we must internalize and integrate each stage sequentially, it is only important that we focus on the next stage in our development, rather than what we believe is the “end-game.” I believe the model’s most important feature is that it gives the individual something to focus on in their growth process, while providing a trail of bread crumbs for their development from one stage to the next. Focus, or intentionality, determines where we direct our energy. So, if it is our intent to age more dynamically and become a master of our own aging process, then a stage theory such as this one – with all of its flaws and exceptions – provides an energetic pathway towards what is obviously a greater truth about the aging process.