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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 …