Our Professors on Gerontology

Perspectives on Issues in Gerontology—Meaningful Aging, Boomers and Media and the Value of Narrative

Spirituality and Meaningful Aging
Dr. Gary Irwin-Kenyon

When we consider our journey through time, many of us emphasize physical or outer aging, which is usually about decline, or we speak about anti-aging through cosmetic interventions. We also hear about positive aging, successful aging and ways to achieve this end.  These latter terms imply that we can “fail” at life, and thus, this is not a useful way to embrace our journey.

We can also explore human aging through meaning, which involves more than will power or positive thinking.  We may speak about spiritual aging and meaning together, since they are very closely related. A focus on spiritual aging can give us a way to find new meaning in situations of loss and pain. We may discover this new meaning through religious practice, but meaning may also be found by looking at our lives as stories or in various forms of meditation, Tai Chi, or even nature itself.  Meaning is personal, and closely tied to the inside of our unique life journey. We can find our own ways to turn loss and suffering into growth, new beginnings and peace, and help others to do the same.

The key to meaningful aging is that we first need to give up some control and accept what has happened; give up our original expectations. We need to give in so that there is an opening for new meaning. Spiritual aging requires us to lose, to “not know.”

The story of a late dear colleague at St. Thomas University, Leo Ferrari, provides an example of what is possible. After a long career as a philosophy professor, Leo became an Alzheimer survivor. He went through a very difficult period due to this fundamental change in his life. However, he went on to write a book and give public lectures on dementia. His new purpose and meaning in life became helping others dealing with this disease.

Programs that provide opportunities for all of us to age meaningfully should be an integral part of our health care and educational system. Moreover, they are user-friendly and very cost-efficient.

Dr. Gary Irwin-Kenyon is a professor of gerontology and chair of the department. His academic expertise is on narrative gerontology, wisdom, spirituality and end of life.  He is the author, most recently of, Storying Later Life.

Baby Boomers and Mass Media
Dr. Linda Caissie

“Ticking time bombs,” “grey tsunami,” “voodoo demography,” “bed crashers,” “greedy geezers,” “dependent elderly,” and “anti-aging” are just a few headlines we are regularly exposed to in mass media when referring to aging boomers.  The dominant message is that the aging population is a social problem because of the heavy economic burden they will impose on the younger generation.

In contrast, some advertisements promise to slow down or even reverse aging through creams, surgeries, Botox, and adopting a new healthy active lifestyle.  Aging becomes a disease that can be cured or even prevented through the purchase of the right products and lifestyle.  Thus, it becomes an individual’s responsibility to grow old in a normative and desirable way in order to avoid becoming a burden.

Our youth-obsessed media is guilty of creating and perpetuating ageism by exploiting our fears of growing older.  The consequence is that consumers internalize the media’s negative symbols, deny the aging process in general (or believe we can somehow control it), and blame the aging population for our economic and health care troubles.

There have been some positive portrayals of older adults in the media but they are often shown as the exception to the norm.  Mass media is guilty of ignoring other aging related issues such as: older adults continue to contribute to the economy; they continue to pay taxes; they are generally healthier and live active lives; are involved in unpaid caregiving; volunteer; continue learning and taking on new challenges; and come with years of life experience.

As consumers, we need to be more critical of  mass media and be aware of the social inequality the media may perpetuate. Baby boomers come from an era of student protests, peace movements, women’s liberation, civil rights movement, civil disobedience. Therefore, mass media should be paying closer attention to this group who just may pave the way to a new vision of aging.

Dr. Linda Cassie is an assistant professor of gerontology whose academic expertise is on gender, family, narratives, and images of aging in the media.  Her most recent publication is on “The Raging Grannies: Narrative Construction of Gender and Aging”

Narrative Gerontology and Narrative Care
Dr. Bill Randall

One of the things we enjoy about being with older people is hearing their stories.

The emerging field of narrative gerontology, which St. Thomas University’s Gerontology Department has pioneered, takes as its starting point that we are storytelling creatures.  Indeed, the stories we tell others or ourselves about our past, present, or future are determinative of our identities, emotions, relationships, and beliefs.

Narrative gerontology is interested in how such stories change with time—with biographical aging as opposed to biological aging—and how these changes affect our experience of later life, particularly our experience of wisdom and spirituality. It is also interested in how the practice of  narrative care affects how “successfully” we age.

Broadly defined, narrative care means listening respectfully to a person’s life story, where the person listened to experiences increased insight, empowerment, and meaning.  Compared to costly medical procedures, narrative interventions are person-centred and inexpensive, and can be practised in a variety of ways and situations:

  • biographical interviews with residents of nursing homes
  • reminiscence groups with returning veterans
  • life story-telling with survivors of the Holocaust
  • life review therapy with depressed older adults
  • reminiscence activities with hospice patients, dementia patients

Besides offering courses that explicitly incorporate a narrative component, STU’s Gerontology faculty have published extensively on biographical aging and related topics and are frequently invited to speak at academic and professional conferences. In 2009, they were co-recipients of the Gerontological Society of America’s award for “Theoretical Developments in Social Gerontology.”  They have also worked closely with York Care Center and other long-term institutions in the region to implement programs of narrative care.

With Clive Baldwin, our Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies, we are endeavouring to establish an international network of theorists and researchers committed to “best practices” in narrative.

Dr. Bill Randall is a professor in gerontology whose academic expertise is on late life-learning, biographical aging and counselling.