There are three tasks or personal qualities that are especially relevant to old age. These are well explained in George Vaillant’s Ageing Well. They are: generativity, keeping the meaning and integrity.

Generativity as defined by (Ageing Well p.115) John Kotre: To invest oneself in forms of life and work that will outlive the self.

Generativity – not intimacy – the best predictor of regular orgasm for women and lead to marriages that kept improving into old age.

Generativity is about caring for the younger people (at work or home). It may seem contradictory, but one way to check how we are doing with this is to ask: What have I learned from them [my children, younger colleagues or friends]?

Learning from those younger than us has many advantages. It keeps us learning – it helps us stay sharp and keep our minds alive. It helps us stay in touch with the world and how it is changing. And it helps us maintain our relationships (as we age our contemporaries tend to die).

Keeper of the Meaning
This is partly being judicious – seeing that there is more than one side to the story.
The radicalism of conservatism.
Those who founded a group of some kind will usually recall why it was founded. For them the group may remain a means to an end – make a widget or a fortune, bring a social or material innovation into existence. The founders can often be less attached to the group than those who are part of it. This can be a surprise – the founder will move on with few regrets while others care more about the group itself.

In this way conservatism (remembering the reason for the founding) can lead to radicalism – a willingness to try out new things, or simply close the show down if a better way of achieving the original purpose comes along. One of the tasks of old age is to remember why we did things (their meaning).

This too can give a sense of the bigger picture – elders can be ‘consultants’ who have a perspective that is not only more balanced but wider.

I am fifty and can remember the older conservatives (I am speaking from the Australian perspective). They boasted that we did not live in a police state like those Communists. The newer conservatives have recently introduced a whole series of laws widening police powers, even reviving sedition. (The ‘progressive’ (sic) side of politics has done little to alter this.) I would like to cling to the older conception of democracy – which embraced not being a police state – and repudiate the newer, which seems to come down to comfortable consumption. Is this stodgy rigidity and pining for the good old days. I think not – I didn’t like the older conservatives at the time, I prefer innovation to trying to preserve older ways and of doing things, and I am not pining – just very angry.

Death is coming – but this is more than chronology. It brings us to questions of how we have lived and how well.

As defined by Erik Erikson (Ageing Well p.49) integrity is ‘an experience which conveys some world order and spiritual sense. No matter how dearly paid for, it is the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necesssity, permitted of no substitutions.’

If we can live in light of death (when old or young) we can have an intensity and a sense of preciousness, it can challenge us to be who we are.

This doesn’t mean that we have to think about death much. Laurens van der Post when old said that he still felt the same as ever and just got on with living. This is integrity too.

As death gets nearer we can have the sense that we have done what we needed to do.

Whether young or old I would like to hear your experience of ageing. Do you think these three tasks are part of your experience? Let me know in the comments.

If you liked this post you might like others in this series:
A Good Old Age
Ageing Well – can we do anything about it?

Would you like to feel less stressed?
Could you do with more joy in your life?

The answer is living authentically. Buy the book or sign up for the course now from my Living Authentically website.

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4 Comments to “The Three Tasks of Ageing Well”

  1. “If we can live in light of death (when old or young) we can have an intensity and a sense of preciousness, it can challenge us to be who we are.” I was aware of that since late childhood. I could never understand why Americans deny the fact of death, and that’s one of my biggest objections to the Law of Attraction. In my view it cheapens life by focusing on goals and “success”.

  2. Evan says:

    Thanks Jean. I only learned this is in early adulthood. I very much agree with you about the Law of Attraction. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Marie says:

    Hi, Evan –

    I do find great value in investing in others . . especially those younger than me. For example, I love to watch children wake up to the wonder of making music . . . it allows me to remember my own history of making music.

    Thanks for helping us think about that which is larger than us.

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

  4. Evan says:

    Thanks for your comment Marie.

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