How people talk about aging depends in part upon the ages of the conversationalists. I relied in my 20s on materials in gerontology collections. My own loving and suffering mid-career generated identification and empathy for older Americans. Only in late life have I more fully appreciated the joys and fears of soul friends—diverse elders of the tribe who illuminate distinctive journeys of living into death.
longitudinal perspectives, old age, loving, suffering
Dad turned stone-faced when I told him that my doctoral thesis would chronicle old age in the United States from 1790 to the 1970s. (Years before, when I declared a desire to become a professor, not the lawyer or doctor he had wanted me to be, Dad muttered, “A school teacher.”) He swore contemptuously this time: “What the f--- do you know about old age?” My father raised a good question, but it was one that I had the sense to leave unanswered. Dad died suddenly, just before my first child’s birth and the publication of my book Old Age in the New Land (Achenbaum, 1978).
In mid-career I happily spent several years on the Generations Editorial Advisory board. I co-authored an issue on the changing perceptions of aging and the aged (Schenk & Achenbaum, 1994) and wrote occasional policy critiques (Achenbaum & Carr, 2014). Interjecting personal beliefs into professional writing, I joined other American Society on Aging (ASA) members in blazing critical gerontology as a counter-narrative to quantifiable, evidence-based research (Cole et al., 1993). Transitions about selected facets of my aging self can be documented in successive articles I wrote in Generations.
Writing in Generations About Aspects of My Second Half of Life
My first essay, “Reflections on Being Fifty,” focused on The Baby Boom at Midlife and Beyond:
"At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves … I am still wrestling with taking off masks I learned so well to wear … Of course the stuff that counts lies beneath the facial surface. … Try as I might, I still have not achieved an integration of thoughts, feelings and actions that have eluded me most of my adulthood." (Achenbaum, 1998)
I was struggling ambivalently to respond to my father’s profanely provocative question. I had learned, by the time I was 50, some things about late life. I had only envisioned superficial complexities, however. Decades of research and teaching rarely captured what fed my awakening soul, so I decided to seek out Baby Boomers and individuals in the Greatest Generation whose paths diverged from mine.
While exploring what it means to grow older, disconnects in people’s stories redefined spaces between thoughts and gaps in feelings. I underestimated, for instance, how greatly chronic illnesses and declining capacities could affect older persons’ self-perceptions and social engagement. I seemed oblivious to kin who died unexpectedly in their prime until I better ascertained the transitory fragility of life through personal experiences of suffering.
“Chronically Me” records how I felt:
"My body once had served me well with little care or thought for maintenance on my part. Now it was beginning to let me down … Chronic illness gave me a taste of my own mortality that I had not viscerally experienced before … I became tired and lethargic … withdrew from friends … [and] started to miss appointments, to forget names and citations." (Achenbaum, 2006)
Mental, social, and spiritual decline were sapping energy and curbing enthusiasm in my prime.
Nevertheless, in “the third quarter of life,” I was savoring some of the joys of living in liminal moments bracketed by loving and suffering (Pifer & Bronte, 1986). When my granddaughter Tabitha was born, I was a relative late bloomer at age 64. Some friends of mine had become first-time grandfathers before age 40. More than 90% of women and men roughly my age already were repositioning themselves in multigenerational families—half had at least one adult grandchild interacting with them better than they had with their offspring.
At that time, I recounted, “Minutes after the delivery I heard my son-in-law Erik say to my daughter Emily, ‘We really have to name this child—now!’... I feared making a false step or sarcastic comment. I wanted to see what happened next” (Achenbaum, 2011).
‘Grandfathers, I slowly learned, should remain on the sidelines, watching developments in silence.’
Advising undergraduates and mentoring doctoral students might have prepared me for becoming a grandfather. I was accustomed to offering advice primarily to prevent disastrous outcomes. Confused, distressed younger people, I insisted, could take or leave my counsel as they deemed appropriate. Transferring skills from an academic to a kinship setting, I had to figure out on my own when and how to step aside. Grandfathers, I slowly learned, should remain on the sidelines, watching developments in silence.
Critically Exploring Aging’s Personal Frontiers and Respecting Collective Borders
New opportunities arose when I was in my mid-60s, which triggered memories of earlier struggles and mistakes, and tested my expertise as a (self/societal) critical gerontologist. Clearly perceiving myself as having been transformed by loving and suffering, I struggled with fresh challenges:
"I am [not quite] semi-retired from an academic career to which I devoted enormous time and energy … On a personal note, I remarried [and then] a dark face of aging appeared. My bride was diagnosed with cancer nine weeks after the wedding … [making] me an uncomfortable caregiver." (Achenbaum, 2012)
Through these unwelcome rites of passage—retirement took 7 years, while caregiving others—I often felt discouraged but never excessively burdened.
Personal opinions about a disarticulated political culture turned overtly partisan in a special issue of Generations that I co-edited called, “The Summer of Love, the Baby Boomers, and Their Arc of Aging.” I fortunately was savvy enough to let co-authors, far more disparate in attitudes and experiences than media pundits usually portray, “to illustrate points of divergence and converging moments as this generation matured and aged” (Achenbaum, 2017). ASA member Paul Kleyman illuminated media hype, and Robert Applebaum estimated Baby Boomers’ financial readiness for retirement. Rick Moody limned our generation’s dramatic shift from great expectations to a crisis of meaning:
"The postwar period of baby boomer childhood and adolescence seemed to embody a story of progress, an expectation that the future would be better, that each generation would live better than those before … . But this collective story about hope and progress has its dark side … For many of them, it looks like Golden Pond may be drying up … What about baby boomers as they confront later life? Are they disillusioned? ... Despite happy talk about aging … . [they deflect] facts of aging, sickness, and death." (Moody, 2017)
My successive contributions to Generations, compiled altogether, evoked contrapuntal themes of growth and recapitulation, setbacks and breakthroughs. As May Sarton (1995) observed, it is “quite easy to wither into old age, and hard to grow into it.” Still writing, my longing and capacity for self-reflection continues relentlessly. Accordingly, I now interject three recent additional insights, which toggle between age-irrelevant personal knowledge and age-based societal disparities:
- Loving and suffering in aging require strength, resilience, and courage.
- Aging can generate a spiritual quest that prioritizes hopes and wrestles with fears.
- Not everyone fulfills the first two propositions, but all of us live into death.
No cross-cultural comparative analyses validate these complementary propositions. Instead, they attest to an ongoing quest to highlight variegated dimensions of advancing years.
Loving and Suffering in Aging
I strive with mixed success to sustain a self-awareness that embodies loving and suffering in late life. I savor conversations with my wife and daughters; I seek solitude gazing at sunsets, when I am not cheating in card games with my grandchildren or dining with friends. These pleasures somewhat compensate for losses—cognitive impairment, ageist rebukes, giving up control, and years-long haphazard caregiving (Achenbaum, 2021).
Prosaic iterations and serendipitous intrusions frame my loving and suffering, often proving as transformative as unexpected epiphanies and debilitating crises. They refract choices and redirect decisions independent of my overlapping adherence to cultural norms and transactions. Shadowy revelations, emotional pain, and euphoric moments meanwhile inwardly interact in disturbingly random motion all the time. I suffer wounds when unmasking my self, many never to be fully healed by a transcendent, immanent, immortal love encased and enculturated in diurnal tasks. Blessed with hard-earned entitlements, I nevertheless cannot singlehandedly perfect a holistic integrity that embodies my being.
‘I strive with mixed success to sustain a self-awareness that embodies loving and suffering in late life.’
I am a White male Baby Boomer whose Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish ancestors came to the United States over a span of 340 years. (This background probably influenced my working as an historian and gerontologist, a calling which landed me, sequentially in Athens, Fort Sill, Ann Arbor [in two stints], Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Houston.) My career, like most people’s, was punctuated by ups and downs. I happily (though admitting residual misgivings) pass the baton to younger and older professionals.
“What, in ill thoughts again?” declaimed Shakespeare in King Lear (1606). “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all.”
Questions tougher (putatively more poignant than the one that Dad profaned a half-century ago) accompany twists and turns in my gero-psychological ripening. Did extra years engender the potential for meaning-filled strength, one that anchors core values such as compassion and respect for the dignity of others? Conversely, can longevity in an age-phobic culture exacerbate egotistical fears of worthlessness and abandonment?
What animates hopes for flourishing, amid ceaseless adaptations to frailty and loss of intimate partners? Years of autonomy do not epigenetically segue the surrender of control over our destinies and demise.
Facing advancing age with strength, resilience, and courage ideally nurtures wisdom. But where does such wisdom lie? Extracting it from scholarly sages, scientific punditry, or savvy soundbites helps, but wisdom’s wellsprings are found within my conscious, spiritual, soulful being—all contingently present as I stumble on uncharted, often forbidding, pathways.
Aging Often Sparks a Conscious, Spiritual, and Soulful Quest
Breakthroughs in loving and setbacks on pilgrims’ ways, I am increasingly aware, instigate transformative developments toward authentic individuation—whether they be healthful or irrational, ecstatic or frustrating. Experiential awakenings, which burst forth often serendipitously (Achenbaum, in press), represent shards of knowledge amid clusters of unknowing. Both phenomena emit ironies, paradoxes, contingencies, and lacunae.
One continuity prevails, however, over time and across space: The synergistic interplay of conscious, spiritual, and soulful aging integrates self-caring that energizes caregiving gifts. I suspect but cannot document how many elders around the globe want to connect with a healer, a life-sustaining, loving Creator (however imagined, named, and honored by sojourners).
Conscious aging, for me, renews intentionally self-reflective growth through an open-ended ripening of heart and mind. Dualistic thinking and straightjacketed feelings give way to tolerating dubiety and ambiguity, to forgiving one’s mistakes and misjudgments, and to shedding attachments and addictive behaviors. Conscious aging accepts limitations and flaws that for much of my life manifested itself in clinging to self-determinedly coveting more.
Spiritual aging conjoins conscious roots and potentially enthuses soulful branches as seekers remember joys and to derive consolation in tragedy. Spiritual yearnings per se cannot hide wounds, discard resentments, or unmask invidious envy of kin, friends, and strangers. This raises questions unimagined earlier in life, however. Does a Creative Source of Being need me as much as I thirst for communion to receive grace-filled, overflowing love? Embarked in soulful aging, I strive consciously and stagger spiritually for friendship with a boundless, ineffable Ultimate Reality.
‘Conscious aging, for me, renews intentionally self-reflective growth through an open-ended ripening of heart and mind.’
Yet doubts remain about being bounded by loving and suffering. Despite having come this far in my spiritual journey, I palpably dread being forgotten or rendered obsolescent. What if seeking love culminates not in union, but dissolves into dreaded and dreadful nothingness? What if divine love is a crucible that, by melting layers of my cherished self, tempts me to detest what led me all along to desire God? And herein lies the hoped-for, albeit paradoxical gift of soulful aging: I prepare for dying into death, with all its uncertainties, by centering my mind and anchoring my heart in the embrace of a mystical Being. Beyond my mortal comprehension, a standing invitation to love always preexisted my returning to dust.
Death Is a Certainty
There are manifold faces of age and many pathways to advancing in years, which elders here and abroad experience as they grow older in diverse ways. Some of us cannot overcome acute despair and chronic suffering. Love’s vulnerability does not pierce those who never have felt beloved. Conscious, spiritual, and soulful aging neither prevents physical insults nor mitigates cognitive decline. Elders who neither look nor act like me have distinctive viewpoints and unique experiences. All nonetheless must prepare for and face up to death’s inevitability.
Scientists and philosophers for millennia have been debating variously contested perspectives on death and interpreting manifold fears about dying. Like Seneca who once asserted that “senectus morbidus est” (old age is a disease), some experts and emerging professionals investigate and measure finitude’s pathological origins.
Aristotle’s emphasis on black humors foreshadowed researchers who quantify physiological causes of passing or detect genes producing free radicals that sever tenuous albeit dynamic bonds between loving and suffering.
I doubt that anti-aging interventions prolong life well beyond current lifespan limits.
"Of hundreds of known diseases and their predisposing characteristics, some 85 percent of our aging population will succumb to the complications of one of only seven major entities: atherosclerosis, hypertension, adult-onset diabetes, obesity, mental depressing states such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias, cancer, and decreased resistance to infections." (Nuland, 1993, pg. 78).
Myriad imponderables complicate living with fortitude and dying into finitude. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia permit “medical aid in dying.” Drugs and opioids administered to hospice patients often appear to be murky transactions, as do causes of sudden death in nursing homes and assisted-living centers. Does a spike in suicides among older Americans during the coronavirus pandemic suggest that feelings of loneliness, isolation, and abandonment should enter the etiology? Can pathologists and ethicists here and abroad create a uniform, standard definition of brain death after cardiac arrest or a massive stroke that allows for validating individuals’ accounts that recall experiences of bright lights in tunnels?
Reflections at the bedside and before funerals, moreover, vary among those who mourn loved ones’ passing. Is the accidental death of a child or youth more grievous than the demise of an elder who has endured an incurable disease or decades-long diminishment? Some bereaved cremate their dead; others forbid the practice. And why is it that we deny anxiety about the hereafter, or blandly sentimentalize tradition-based beliefs concerning life-after-death? It’s not yet for me to say, particularly as I must acknowledge doubts in the face of mystery.
Still Writing a Bit More—I Am Not Dead Yet!
“What the f--- do you know about old age?” erupted Dad. Forty-five years ago, I wrote that “many of the aged’s present resources, problems, and opportunities, in fact, are distinctive products of the longstanding, complex, and cumulative interplay of historical events and personalities as well as ideational factors and structural forces” (Achenbaum, 1978/2019). To this response, I still cannot compellingly encapsulate diverse demographics nor probe comparative societal intersectionality—though I grasp multiple routes toward a forever elusive completion of being that defy nomothetic prescriptions or evidence-based inquiries (Goldman et al., 2022). Within limits to what I can write, loving and suffering change contexts with age.
First, elders of the tribe vary in the degree to which they display underappreciated resources and support to grapple with mounting chronic ailments, mental impairment, as well as psychological decrements and socioeconomic disengagements that persist in an ageist culture. Second, regardless of religious affiliations or secular constraints, older people mostly can opt to lean into spiritual quests, with convoys of friends to balance loving and suffering.
It is not for me to write more until I further encounter the Fourth Age’s unfathomable joys and endure unexpected problems that lie ahead. I have learned, in facing finitude, that love is universal and abundant. It is not immutable, however.
Any homecoming with a divine spark probably will be fraught with ambiguity, mystery, and surprises. Loving and suffering animate advancing years. They are freely given, not a communal state to be earned. Dying since birth, presently I await death in patience and silence, whatever its cause, shape, or timing. So I surely will keep meditating and writing for Generations should I be granted extra, healthful years.
W. Andrew Achenbaum, PhD, is professor emeritus at Texas Medical Center, Houston, Texas.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Milan Ilic Photographer
Achenbaum, W. A. (1978/2019). Old age in the new land: The American experience since 1790. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted 2019.
Achenbaum, W. A. (1998). Reflections on being fifty. Generations, 22, 90–91.
Achenbaum, W. A. (2006). Living with chronic Illness: Chronically me. Generations, 30, 93–94.
Achenbaum, W. A. (2011). On becoming a grandfather. Generations, 35, 11–15.
Achenbaum, W. A. (2012). This chronic patient becomes a humanistic patient who helps clinicians. Journal of Pain Symptom and Management, 44, 784¬–788.
Achenbaum, W. A. (2017). The summer of love, the Baby Boomers, and their arc of aging. Generations, 41(3), 6–14.
Achenbaum, W. A. (2021). Combining spiritual aging and geropsychological development: Easier said than done. GeroPsych, 34, 101–107.
Achenbaum, W. A. (in press). Conscious aging, spiritual aging, and soulful aging: My journey toward the vulnerability of love. Journal of Religion, Spirituality, and Aging.
Achenbaum, W. A. & Carr, L. C. (2014). A brief history of aging services in the United States. Generations, 38(2), 9–13.
Cole, T. R., Achenbaum, W. A., Jakobi, P.L., & Kastenbaum, R. (Eds.). (1993). Voices and visions of aging: Toward a critical gerontology. Springer Publishing.
Goldman, M., de Medeiros K., & Cole, T. R. (Eds.). (2022). Critical humanities and ageing. Routledge.
Moody, H. R. (2017). Baby Boomers: From great expectations to a crisis of meaning. Generations, 41, 95–100.
Nuland, S. B. (1993). How we die. Alfred A. Knopf.
Pifer, A. & Bronte, D. L. (Eds.). (1986). Our aging society. W. W. Norton.
Sarton, M. (1995). The house by the sea. W. W. Norton.
Schenk, D., & Achenbaum, W. A. (1994). Changing perceptions of aging and the aged. Generations, 17(2), 4–93.
Shakespeare, W. (2004). King Lear. Simon and Schuster. Original work published 1606.