101: Re-visioning Aging: The Treasures of Later Life with Dr. Susan Stewart

“We become women of all seasons.” Our culture often associates negativity with aging. We dread what may come with age, despite mounting evidence that our worse fears are less likely than we think. Dr. Susan Stewart began examining this contradiction after encountering some rather heartening messages in myths, folktales, psychology, and gerontology that just encourage us to embrace and even look forward to the winter of our lives. Join Dr. Viado this week as she and Dr. Stewart discuss negative cultural messaging; the different dimensions of aging; and our lives in review. Dr. Susan Stewart has been a Professor of Psychology for over thirty years (now emerita) at Sonoma State University, and is a retired therapist and a grandmother to four. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the age 26 and was a Marriage and Family Therapist for many years. Her exploration of aging began in 2000 as she immersed herself into the myths and folktales after a series of encounters with the word crone. In place of the wicked and ugly portrayals she expected to find, she discovered some very inspiring old women. She was compelled to share her discoveries after finding that gerontologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and others were describing similar discoveries in late life development. She began to spread the word about the under-appreciated gifts of age in her classes, papers, presentations, and workshops. On the eve of turning 70, she completed Winter’s Graces: The Surprising Gifts of Later Life in which she weaves together folktales, themes from the world’s wisdom and spiritual traditions, current findings in gerontology and other fields, stories of her own and those of other older women, and characters of film – all of which reflect late-life qualities like contentment, agelessness, simplicity, and fierceness. When she’s not enjoying the company of her four grandchildren, singing, dancing or playing her cello, Susan continues to make presentations and offer workshops on the gifts of late life. She is most passionate about sharing the gifts of late life in a culture that mistakenly equates old age with debilitating decline. She has found that stories, along with recent research; visual images of elders; and the opportunity for participants to reflect on and share their own attitudes and experiences of aging, are a potent mixture. To find more information about Dr. Stewart: https://wintersgraces.com/ https://wintersgraces.com/blog/ References Mentioned: Winter’s Graces: The Surprising Gifts of Later Life by Dr. Susan Stewart Celtic Myth and Magick: Harnassing the Power of the Gods and Goddesses James Hollis Laura Carstensen: Older People are Happier – TEDxWomen 2011 Gerotranscendence: A Developmental Theory Of Positive Aging by Lars Tornstam The Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence in the Aged by Robert Butler In This Episode, Dr. Viado and Dr. Susan Stewart Discuss: ● The True Story of the Crone ● The Winter of Life ● The Role of Elders in American Culture ● Changes in the Perception of Chronological Age Time Stamps: 5:10 – Welcome Susan! 5:55 – The Story of the Accidental Crone 11:30 – Appearances of the Crone Myth Across Cultures 16:30 – What are the different dimensions of aging? 20:10 – Women of All Seasons 22:00 – Losing the Lure of Fitting In 24:40 – Fears Surrounding Aging 30:05 – Gerotranscendence – Stepping Over the Ego 33:27 – Life in Review and a Peaceful Death 37:00 – An Algerian Story on Audacious Authenticity and Authentic Power Quotes: 7:46 “Sometimes we don’t know where we’re going. We think we’re going to ‘A’ and life has a very different plan called ‘Q.’ And that’s what I feel like happened for me. I didn’t mean to write a book and I didn’t really mean to study age but I ran across the word a third time and in folktales and in life, when something has happened three times, it’s a really good idea to pay attention. So the third time, I read in a random book, it was about Celtic women’s spirituality and the author Edain McCoy told…an ancient myth about the crone goddess who had three heads and was in the form of a serpent and in this story, a young warrior with a large sword cuts off one of the heads. And her interpretation was that when the young warrior severed the crone head of the goddess, humankind lost it’s connections to the endless cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth. That was really intriguing to me. Those cycles have been very powerful. They just are, I think they’re in our DNA, my whole life that’s been of interest to me. So, I decided I was going to look into this and just see what I could find and all I had to go on was the crone was the devourer aspect of the goddess, which was not very heartening in terms of a place to look for good news. I read myths of goddesses, everything I could find on old goddesses, as in mature women. And then I went to folk tales and that’s really where I found the stories…that were so exciting and heartening and inspiring about what’s possible for people, in particular women, when we age.” 10:04 “I started to find research that validated those same qualities, that was really important for me to share and then at the same time, as I began sharing with some of my friends that I was thinking of writing about becoming a crone, the feedback was really cautionary…I was getting really aware of how negative the perception of age is in this culture and I hadn’t really known that so much because I hadn’t known that or thought about it before.” 11:50 “The enormous impact that our attitudes toward age have on us, not even just our physical health but our emotional well-being, how our brains function and how long we live, so if our picture is as it is largely in this culture, negative, the idea is that it’s an inevitable downhill slide into misery. It’s something we should dread and hide from, that affects our life in not a good way. Whereas, in cultures where elders are respected and have a significant role in the community or the tribe, that has positive effects on all of those dimensions. So that’s one of the major ways that these views of aging impact elders themselves and I think also, for younger people, there’s a tremendous amount of compassion and ingenuity and freedom and wisdom that goes untapped in cultures where age is denigrated because we don’t know to look to our elders. And if elders are told that they’re over, they’ve already had their run and they’re irrelevant or worse, that they’re a burden, then we don’t step forward and even think of offering anything so I think it not only hurts elders, it hurts younger members of the human family.” 16:51 “We used to define age, really, in terms of chronology, the number of years you’ve been on the planet. And over time, the vision of age has really changed where it’s now viewed as a multidimensional concept. We not only have a chronological age but we have a biological age, based primarily on our physical health. We have an emotional age, which reflects how mature or immature we are, psychologically. We have a social age, although right now that’s very hard to determine because the social clock, as it’s called, is so all over the place. Eighty-year-olds, some are dead, some are still working, some have found a new career…social age is less and less relevant. But there are all those other cognitive age, the ways that our brains function. So we now look at age as a multidimensional idea and chronological has really lost its seed of honor, if you will, as the yardstick of how old we really are. It’s pretty irrelevant, especially the older we get, the less alike we become with each other. We become more and more who we are, less and less like our age cohorts.” 18:45 “It’s very fluid, the sense of how old one is, I think is very changeable, depending on how whether we have the flu or if we’re in a really healthy place, whether there’s a lot of stress on our heart and mind or not, what’s going on in the world, we’re not one age and we don’t stage one age either so there is a gift or a grace of later life that I call agelessness…it was a very tricky one to articulate because ageless, in most people’s minds, in this culture, is a sort of badge of honor, reflecting how you hide your age very well and you don’t look your age. That’s what ageless means to a lot of people but for me, it means being multi-aged, having access to all the ages we’ve been, including old, and not shying away from any season or feeling like we have to give up young because we’re also old. But also, not denying age because it’s a beautiful season.” 20:28 “Some of us get old emotionally, and spiritually and psychologically, at a younger age but I think just the accumulated experience of many decades gives us something that we just can’t get any other way, other than living a long and full life.” 21:55 “There’s a way in which fitting in and pleasing others, which I think is a big message for women, in particular, that starts to lose its lure. And it becomes more important being at home in our own skin and being true to who we are, it’s not that we don’t care about other people at all, it’s not that, because in a sense we get more connected to other people. But in terms of living by collective standards, we get freed up from that in general as we age, which is wonderful.” 24:05 “The things we’re most scared of are not the norm, they don’t happen to most people.” 28:45 “Another area that also was really not in the textbook but I think is really important that’s kind of a counterpart to that idea that we come into ourselves and we get a little more eccentric and audacious and free, we all get over ourselves in later life. There’s a way in which our personal, egoic identity wanes somewhat in importance and we get, for many older people, a sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.” 30:42 “In later life, as we become aware we won’t be here forever, that has a way of bringing into remarkable clarity what we really value, what we no longer care about and what is, really, wasting precious time and energy and there’s a greater freedom to let go of that last category and the less important things and to really live in terms of our deepest priorities so there’s this permission that arrives in later life as we start recognizing that we’re limited in terms of time and this sense of urgency to make sure that the way we live is in alignment with what we most care about.” 33:27 “At the time [Robert Butler] was first involved in gerontology, the kind of view of old people is that they sat around and remembered the past and cut themselves off from life and made themselves miserable and he saw something very different going on – that there was a lot of reflection and a need for quiet and solitude because we’re entertaining memories from childhood, adolescence, our youth. Memories just come back in dreams, when we’re sitting and being quiet and the purpose of that is to find the threads of meaning that have run through our lives so we can make peace with who we are and the life we’ve lived. It’s a beautiful process, sometimes it can be painful. We may need to forgive ourselves or forgive other people, let go of some things, look at some events in a different way than we have before…it clarifies what we still have to give, as a legacy because that’s a part of being an elder – to guide the young, contribute to the culture.” 35:55 “I think that’s the natural destiny of the elder, is to be a light and to guide and to spread wisdom and from the perspective of fifty-something, sixty, seventy years of being an older adult – recognizing that we are all connected, we aren’t as alone as we think we are and things have a way of working out over time, not always as fast as we want but there’s usually more to the story than that desperate, horrible point in it.”