11/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Legacy: A New Vision of Aging

"And on the seventh day, God ceased work and rested," and Sabbath came into existence. But vayinafash means more than rest. A more accurate translation is "God restored His soul," according to Rabbi Bernard S. Raskas. It must then be our task as seniors to restore our souls, once our worldly work of earlier years is finished, because we are made in the image of God.

I write from a new perspective after a recent experience with 900 older adults restoring their souls at the National Older Adults Conference "Legacies of Wisdom: Weaving Old and New" sponsored by the Church of the Brethren. I was privileged to give their keynote address.

Who are these 900 I now carry in my heart? Men and women: vital, vibrant, committed, some with physical disabilities. None seemed diminished in energy, spirit, humor, joy, or purpose. All were attending to restore their souls. They welcomed me, a stranger in their midst, as one of them, which I'm not by denomination, but am by age and our common belief in the sacred nature of legacy.

We transmit our wisdom to future generations. This process not only seeds the future, but crowns an Elder's life with worth and nobility.
~ Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi

It was awesome to interact with the participants, median age 77. One morning walking to the auditorium, I was behind a woman inching her way across the street, bent with osteoporosis over her walker. Approaching her, I slowed to greet her. "How are you this morning?" She looked up. Her sparkling, lively eyes met mine. "I'm just great," she responded and there was no doubt she meant it.

Now I find myself standing at a crossroads between old and young...Between the anxiety of youth and the wisdom of age....What can I tell others on this road? Find God within yourself. Start making your peace with death, and find the joy in life.
~ Janis Hall

Slowing down: this conference happened at a pace perfect for older adults - relaxed, but neither lethargic, resigned nor depressed. The participants were fully engaged at a pace of respect and patience, peace and acceptance.

Lars Tornstam's theory of gerotranscendence is significant to understand aging as "a developmental process that at very best, ends with a higher state of maturity." He postulates that older adults are developing new values and new perspectives: redefining self, relationships, and fundamental existential questions like time, space, life, and death.

Some gerotranscendental behaviors include: becoming less self-occupied and more selective in choosing social activities; experiencing increased affinity with past generations and one-on-one communication, and decreased interest in superficial social interactions; diminished desire for material things and an intensified need for positive solitude and reflection.

Often family members and professionals misinterpret and misunderstand, believing they are observing pathology: disengagement, depression, or dementia. Tornstam suggests instead that we are witnessing a cosmic shift to a transcendent perspective - a natural progression in aging. This process can be understood as actively restoring the soul.

Our most important task is to help elders become our teachers again and to restore the broken connection among the generations.
~ Henri Nouwen

Each of us needs to know what restores our soul and have that understood and supported by our loved ones. Tornstam says, "It may be that the seed of gerotranscendence is within us all, but needs proper watering to grow." One way to water the seed is to take time to reflect and write.

My sense of joy and appreciation for the world around me changed radically .... my perception of nature and the world seemed to go from black and white to vivid color....What makes me laugh isn't that I now notice the details; it's that I care so much and find inner joy from my discovery of this glorious aspect of life that has been there all along....I am in awe of the world God has created and grateful that I am learning to simply sit and observe. ~ Martha A. Lewis

Aging, I believe, is a gift from the Divine. Each day we wake and breathe we are being showered with abundant life and light brilliantly showered upon us and radiantly given. ~ Sue McGuire

Some suggestions/action steps:

1. Reflect about the idea of gerotranscendence: if you're an aging adult, does it ring true for you? If you're the child of an aging adult, does it describe something you've seen in a parent or other seniors you know or work with?

2. With a cup of tea or mug of coffee, your favorite pen and paper, and no deadline, sit down to reflect and begin a written exploration about one of the following gerotranscendent topics. Allow yourself to slow down to a leisurely, thoughtful pace. No conclusions necessary; no full sentences necessary...this writing is to explore your thoughts, assumptions, beliefs.

Who are you at this time in your life?
What matters most to you now?
What are the qualities you value in your relationships with others?
What are some important learnings from earlier periods of your life?
How are you connected to past generations - ancestors?
What childhood memories do you recall and want to communicate to others?
How do beauty and gratitude inform and enrich your life?
What are your present thoughts about death?

3. Continue to journal regularly (or randomly), and seek other older adults (and family) to share your reflections and reminiscences.

May your writing support your development of maturity and wisdom, and may your soul be restored. ~ Rachael Freed

Please comment on your responses to the idea of gerotranscendence in the comment section below.

*Gerotranscendence, A Developmental Theory of Positive Aging, Lars Tornstam, PhD, Springer Publishing Company, New York, 2005.

You can find out more about documenting your legacy and ethical wills at

The author of Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations, Rachael is a Clinical Social Worker, adult educator and legacy consultant, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.