Firsthand | Experiences with aging

By Helen Carlson

Seven phases of aging—retirement, extended middle age, early transition, revised lifestylelater transition, final period, living into dying—provide a framework for describing what I’ve come to think of as my gifts of aging.

Challenges in caring for my parents over 14 years made necessary an early retirement from my 28 years of teaching, research, publishing, and service. I left much-valued work that had included creation of learning technologies and many collaborations with colleagues in national and international settings. 

As my parents' physical disabilities and dementia increased, I became a shadow of my former self, experiencing firsthand all the trauma of their later phases of aging: revised lifestyle, later transition, final period, and living into dying, Unexpectedly, I also received many gifts of being. Reading, walking, and singing together, and using sensitive caregiving strategies deepened our emotional connections. Keeping vigil during the last weeks of my mom's life, as I had with my dad, became one of the most meaningful experiences of my life—a thin place between immanence and transcendence, life and death, strength in weakness.  

‘A new me’

Then it was time for me to downsize from a hobby farm to a condominium near a nature center. This early transition became for me like an extended middle age. I volunteered as a citizen scientist, a historical society archivist, a member of the UMRA Cares Committee, and as an advocate for families with young children, especially those who were homeless. Coupled with earning certificates from the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the “doing”part of my life increased exponentially. I could easily walk the three-mile nature trails each morning, take the bus and train to events, and spend time with family and friends. I had invented a revised lifestyle, “a new me.

Now, in later transition, I and my husband have become caregivers for each other as chronic health issues arise. Another gift, a workshop, “Living Well with Chronic Conditions,” has provided viable strategies and structures.

Also, as out-of-home activities decrease, the gift of time for silent meditation and reflection as a base for ethical will creation, organizing important end-of-life documents for heirs, and expanding community connections through live-streaming and webinars, has increased. 

And as I look to the final period of my life, I am confident there will be new gifts of aging to help me, once again, answer the questions, Who am I now? What will I do? With whom will I do it?

Phases of Aging

  • Retiring is the transition from employment to a time of embracing new goals and opportunities. Three questions need to be addressed: Who am I? What will I do? With whom will I do it?
  • Extended middle age is a time when new opportunities are embraced, good health abounds, and days are fulfilled with satisfying responsible actions.
  • Early transition is a time when dramatic change occurs. There may be a major relocation and downsizing or the death of a loved one. The person who emerges from this experience is a different person.
  • Revised lifestyle (“the new me”) is a time when the three questions must be asked again: Who am I? What will I do? With whom will I do it? Depending on individual circumstances, this step could be a stable period as short as a year or as long as 20 years.
  • Later transition is a time when living has some difficulties, usually related to declining health and abilities. It begins with getting by through adaptations and finding alternatives to NOT being able to get by without assistance. A point of no return is passed.
  • Final period (also called “While the light lasts”). Now, with dramatically reduced resources (financial, physical, mental), the three questions must again be asked: Who am I? What will I do? With whom will I do it? Often people discover that meditation brings a deep satisfaction that may continue until they reach a point where life seems too long (due to poorly managed pain, inhumane surroundings, etc.)
  • Dying or Living into dying is the time when death draws near and can be a very sacred time of being together with loved ones. If the situation is humane, the transition takes place step by step. The cares of the world are let go, there is a sense of completion in relationships, there is an experienced love, and one sets one’s heart on what is ahead.  

Inspired by the writing of Henry C. Emmons, PhD, in the 2003 book Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook, edited by Melvin Kimble and Susan H. McFadden and published by Fortress Press.