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May 23
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The Psychological Tasks of Old Age

miksang image by Charles Blackhall

miksang image by Charles Blackhall

COLUMN: Aging in Enlightened Society

article by Victoria Howard

In 1988 I wrote an article called “The Psychological Tasks of Old Age.” I was 42 years old. I had my reasons for thinking that I knew something about the topic. I had spent hundreds of hours with elders and their families. I was comfortable with old people and enjoyed being with them. As with many elder care professionals, my grandmother had been a loving presence in my childhood.

It was not my plan to specialize in the psychology of aging when I first came to Naropa in the summer of 1974. My intention was to study Buddhism with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In order to support my family and my studies, I needed a flexible work schedule. Caring for old folks in their homes seemed like just the thing.

I spent hundreds of hours on the meditation cushion and hundreds of hours in the company of elders. I began to notice the similarity. Being with age seemed to be a contemplative practice both for me as a caregiver and for the old people themselves. The gentle pace and simplicity of routine was spacious, almost monastic. The quality of attention to inner and outer detail was striking. I remember a friend of mine in the Buddhist community recounting his mother’s comment when he described to her the practice of meditation. “You are getting the benefit of age without all the difficulties.”

Now that I am an old woman, I can reflect on the conclusions that I drew during those first days of observing elders. At the age of 68, I am no longer simply watching in a detached way. I have the benefit of being the subject of my own study.

In that early article, I presented four psychological tasks “common to all elders.” The first was “Slowing.” I described this deceleration as a “mark of mortality.” That was my first mistake. In retrospect, I see this comment as unconscious ageism. It is true that, in the natural course of life, aging ends in death, but that does not define its nature. Biology and economics form the basis of our Western materialistic view. From this perspective, aging is a degenerative condition. James Hillman, in The Force of Character, speaks to this point:

“The convention of ageism, this “real truth,” makes us feel caught – and conflicted. Either we collapse into increasing pessimistic misery, already at fifty obsessed with the decay of mind and body, or we optimistically deny the “real truth” with a heroic program of spiritual growth and physical fitness. The optimistic view and the pessimistic views share a premise: Old age is affliction.”

The real affliction is thinking of aging in this way. Old people internalize this view. We look at our faces in the mirror with increasing despair. We give up on creativity, adventure and love because we are old. We narrow our lives and limit our possibilities because of this thinking.

It is true that we slow down in old age. We deal with aches and pains, bouts of illness and a feeling of vulnerability that we did not know in our bullet-proof youth. We can focus on our complaints or we can appreciate the richness of slowing, the quality of awareness that it brings, the sense of connection to our bodies and the earth. Old age grounds us and from that grounded point of view, we can begin to attend to our inner and outer world in a way that we could not when we were speeding over the surface of things.

This brings us to the second psychological task: Life Review. In my doctoral research, I examined the way that elders do this. Reflection on the past is common in all stages of life. I remember listening my 11year old son and his 6th grade buddies reminiscing about the “good old days” at their elementary school. They had just graduated and sharing their memories was their way of leaving a place that they loved and moving on.

Elders just have a much larger reservoir of experience to draw from. Weaving those memories together, finding the patterns and digesting the learning, is a huge job. This is where elder-as-artist begins to dawn. The power of creative imagination wells up in old age for just this purpose.

There is much more to say about Life Review now that I am in the middle of it myself and also about the mysterious upsurge of creative and erotic imagination that powers the process. I will discuss this in greater depth elsewhere. For now, I will say that reminiscence and what comes of it is the means by which elders attain realization. Awakening is a natural human process that dawns in old age. Many cultural forces are aligned against it in our society. Ageism, the explicit and implicit devaluing of old age, does not support heroic elders undertaking this task. The Western world does not see that elders doing life review are creating the essential seeds of human culture. We old people are the makers of myth. If you are young, sit down with an elder and ask them to tell you a story. If you are old, gather the young ones around you and start talking.

The third psychological task is Transmission. The outer aspect of transmission is elder-as-teacher. It can be the telling of stories or the very specific instruction that elders give about how to do things or how to conduct oneself. This is how human history is passed from one generation to another. In this age of libraries and computers, the actual person to person communication of elders can be dismissed as no longer relevant, but that is a mistake. It misses a key element of Transmission: the vibratory and energetic quality of the exchange. This is the inner aspect of Transmission. The Tibetans describe this quality of transmission between teacher and student as “Adhisthana.” The word means “rain of blessings” or “grace.” Elders give blessings. That is their archetypal duty. Without those blessings, given and received, the culture is weakened and impoverished. Blessings are our inner sustenance and they can only be passed from human hand to human.

Victoria Howard

Victoria Howard

The fourth psychological task is Letting Go. I used to think of this as slipping away from life, relinquishing connection. Now I think of it as cutting loose.

Victoria Howard will be giving a talk at the Boulder Shambhala Center on July 9th at 6:00PM. Her topic will be “Waking Up Old.” Discussion to follow. Please join us.

Victoria Howard, PhD is
a psychotherapist, writer, teacher and student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is retired core faculty, Naropa University where she helped to develop both the Gerontology and the Master of Divinity programs. She was the co-founder of Dana Home Care and Windhorse Elder Care and is mother of three, grandmother of three, and great grandmother of one.

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9 responses to “ The Psychological Tasks of Old Age ”
  1. Lawrence Vigus
    Jun 1, 2015

    Please keep me updated on your other writings.

  2. Marilyn Couch
    Jun 1, 2015

    I recently broke my shoulder had surgery and lost feeling in my right hand. I didn’t know if I would be able to paint again so I completed a small work, entered a competition and won a one person show at a local gallery. The journey of completing 40 paintings has been a meditation in action. The creative surge has regenerated other aspects of my life. At 66 yrs, this is truly an adventure.

  3. Jeanne Cain
    May 30, 2015

    Provocative. Thank you, Vicky.

  4. I’ve recently completed a 13 month long Crone life review with an opportunity to look at the many masks I wear. I’m interested in other articles you write on the topic, especially the one you refer to in this article, “There is much more to say about Life Review now that I am in the middle of it myself and also about the mysterious upsurge of creative and erotic imagination that powers the process. I will discuss this in greater depth elsewhere.” Where? I ask.

  5. Carell Doerrbecker
    May 29, 2015


    What a great article.

    I recently moved to the country from Toronto and had to take my car in to be fixed. They could not fix it in a day so I had a 15 km. bike ride back home. I was not sure if I would make it, as I haven’t been on my bike in a year and then only for short rides.

    The bike ride home was spectacular. Ox eyed daisies, Alberta wild roses, Goat’s Beard (Wild Salsify), and hundreds of different butterflies. I rescued 2 turtles crossing the road and …did I mention… I’m 62.

    I was feeling a little guilty about enjoying myself so much…and then I read your article.

    Thank you.

  6. Chris O'Hare
    May 29, 2015

    As I prepped for 70s Rite of Passage last Fall, I shared thoughts on Facebook. New to be that open publicly. My experience overlapped several of Victoria’s astute observations.

    I’ve been thinking about aging as a unique development – loss of competencies opens new possibilities. I see differently, often with more dharmic accord.

    I’ve also discovered that my conscious mind is constantly being fooled about many of the changes… similar to my experience of being in denial vis a vis 12 step perspective.

    I’ve had the joy of creative imagination in rewriting my history… actually, more like seeing the wonderful gifts my family passed on, rather than my earlier obsession with their faults. Result is lots of laughter at my mind’s ability to get stuck with nourishing negative habitual patterns which cause myself and others suffering.

    Erik Erikson’s writings on Generatively seem to parallel aspects of Adhisthana. Appreciating younger people; being interested in them; expressing compliments; but mostly just “being” with them. My Refuge Preceptor and Vajrayana Interviewer offered me this precious gift.

    4th aspect: Hold all things lightly, and have space to dance with them. In literal dancing, I learned to lead, but I discovered in the Sakyong’s presence, that when I relaxed and felt my partner’s energy, then I could dance with many people and it was always new and fresh. Much fun. But when the Sakyong came over to dance with me, I froze up. I am still working with this delightful and terrifying situation.

  7. Ellie Hollyday
    May 29, 2015

    Thank you for your wisdom dear Vicky!!! Its great to hear from you.I am thrilled you are sharing your wisdom. This is such a good reminder in my work as a hospice chaplain! Always looking for ways to let the stories arise. Love the ‘energetic quality of exchange’!! the Windhorse teachings are exquisite in this context! I thank you so many times for teaching me and sharing this invaluable work!! My patients and all sentient beings benefit!
    all my love and respect,
    PS You look fabulous!!!

  8. Helena Hungria
    May 29, 2015

    Great and very clear article about aging.Thank you. Good to hear stories also from other people our own age!

  9. Ellen Berger
    May 23, 2015

    So interesting. I don’t recall seeing a description of getting old as a possible beginning of awakening before.

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