Written by Gretchen Cole, Executive Assistant 

Last month, Dr. Pamela Leland wrote that “aging is a very personal journey of continuing to find joy and purpose.” Today we are going to unpack this idea, gathering an Austrian psychologist, the founders of the Eden Alternative philosophy of elder care, and a Swiss medical doctor to help us.

Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor whose best-known work is Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a meditation on his experiences in concentration camps and an exposition of the psychological theory he developed there and practiced for the rest of his life. The heart of his theory, refined in the crucible of the most grueling suffering imaginable, is that, in order to survive psychologically and even physically, human beings must keep discovering purpose in the varying circumstances of their lives. He enumerates three different ways of discovering this meaning: through accomplishment, through love, and through suffering. Today we’ll think about the first two.

Bill and Jude Thomas, founders of the Eden Alternative, affirm the importance of accomplishment when they write in the Ten Principles that “the opportunity to do things that we find meaningful is essential to human health.” Dr. Paul Tournier, who practiced medicine in Switzerland for most of the 20th century, discussed this same issue extensively in Learn to Grow Old. According to him, preparation for retirement must begin well in advance, not only in a financial sense but in a psychological and spiritual sense, so that retired persons might continue to find challenging occupations of their time. “A second career,” he wrote, “is like a plant whose seed has been sown in the midst of a person’s active life, which has taken root, which has developed tentatively at first, but which bears all its fruit in retirement.” Since he wrote this when he himself was 69, he certainly practiced what he preached!

But according to Viktor Frankl, the continuation of an active life is not the only way to find meaning. He offers a second option: we may also discover the current purpose of our life in loving people, experiencing the beauty of nature, or appreciating works of culture. To quote the Ten Principles again, “Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness.” Every senior has the right, and indeed the psychological need, to live in a caring community where smiles, greetings and hugs are freely exchanged and where the generations have opportunities to mingle. Many seniors also enjoy extending love and care to an animal or having access to the beauty of the changing seasons. And most seniors continue to enjoy and develop their appreciation of the arts: literature, music, theatre, film, fine arts, etc.

So we can see that the stereotype of retirement as sitting on the porch knitting and chatting, or hitting the golf course, might actually be a perfect combination for some individuals: loving companionship, access to nature, and the opportunity to complete a project will all conspire to support their mental health. Others may find purpose in less traditional ways, but the path will be easiest if we take Dr. Tournier’s advice and start laying both the logistical and the mental groundwork earlier in life. He believes that those who do not accept old age also did not accept adolescence, or young adulthood, or middle age. If we hope to enjoy our retirement, we must accept first that every age has its challenges and its reward, and then seek to develop habits of contentment now, wherever we are. Such habits of mind will empower us to live well during every age and stage.

Printed in the Daily Local News on Wednesday, September 11, 2019.

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