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A Tapestry of Life: Reflections on "The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully"

As I approached my 60’s, a mix of emotions accompanied me. Unlike the upheaval of turning 30 or the stark realization of fifty looming over me, my 60’s felt different. This decade came with societal labels – was I now considered old or a senior citizen? Elderly or geriatric? While I didn’t identify with any of these labels, I knew I was entering a new stage of life. I felt a desire to explore this new phase of life, not only for myself but also for the benefit of my older clients seeking guidance.

Delving into the literature on aging, I discovered a wealth of insightful books that expanded my understanding of this developmental stage. The more I read, the more I noticed a gap in my graduate program’s curriculum concerning gerontology. While there were many courses on child development, adolescence and becoming an adult, little was said about the decades from 60 and beyond. Whether you are in a similar situation or are simply curious about this rapidly growing demographic, allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite reads on the subject: “The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully” by Joan Chittister.

Joan Chittister, an 88-year-old Benedictine Nun, author, lecturer, and activist, shares profound wisdom accumulated over a lifetime of service through the 41 essays in this book. Covering topics such as regret, ageism, fear, relationships, dreams, loneliness, success, and the meaning of life, "The Gift of Years" offers a reflective framework rather than prescriptive therapeutic techniques. It sets the stage for understanding the concerns and changes that occur as we age and as Chittister points out we are aging from the time we are born. In this beautifully written book, Chittister emphasizes how our mental and spiritual attitudes shape our journey through life's challenges and ultimately determine our growth in older age.

If I were to choose one quote from Chittister’s book that encapsulates its message it would be, "Life is about becoming more than we are, about being all that we can be." This quote resonates deeply with my personal philosophy and professional approach, and it is a message often forgotten as we age. It is important for clinicians to remember when treating older adults that growing and becoming can continue throughout one’s life. Yes, there may be losses but even loss can lead to growth, new insights, and a broader understanding of life. In the “The Gift of Years” Chittister shares insightful essays that can help clinicians guide their clients through this journey of growth and becoming. It can also help the younger clinician understand some of the challenges and blessings of aging.

Chittister's exploration of forgiveness acknowledges the weight of regret and the struggle to

attain perfection. Striving for perfection and experiencing regret when we do not achieve that impossible standard is something I see clients of all ages grappling with. Whether it is attaining the perfect body, being the perfect parent, or writing the perfect book, helping our clients let go of these unrealistic standards and shutting down their internal critic is an integral part of therapy. This can be even more important with our older clients as they think back on their lives and realize that some missteps cannot be changed. Self-forgiveness may be the only answer. Chittister emphasizes that self-forgiveness is a vital part of personal growth but that it often takes learning to forgive others first. She says that as we forgive others, we gain the right (and the ability) to forgive ourselves. This is a powerful concept. By helping our clients accept other’s imperfection, we can help them become more accepting of themselves as well.

In addressing ageism, Chittister dismantles misconceptions about cognitive decline in older

adults. In fact, she observes that, “…most older people retain their normal mental abilities,

including short-term memory, their entire life. They are just as able to learn and remember as younger people, though they begin to process information differently, and they may take longer to complete a project.” She champions the depth, reflection, and philosophical awareness that come with age, challenging societal biases.

Chittister's insights into aging and accomplishment are particularly relevant in today's political landscape, where candidates in their senior years face scrutiny. It underscores the importance of combating age-related prejudices and recognizing the richness of experience that older individuals bring.

As clinicians, we can help our clients confront their internal biases and self-limiting beliefs about aging. To assist in this process, we can debunk myths and misperceptions about aging, normalize what healthy aging looks like while highlighting their valuable skills and experiences. This will help our older clients foster a deeper sense of self-awareness and confidence in navigating this stage of life.

Each essay concludes with reflections on the burdens and blessings associated with each topic. Chittister's nuanced approach highlights how every life experience, even regrets, can be reframed as an opportunity for growth and understanding. Helping our clients examine their lives and their regrets can give them the space to find the learning lessons, strengths and blessings that may have come from their experiences. As we have learned from trauma treatment, often old, painful memories stay frozen in time when unprocessed. Through exploration of the topics in Chittister’s book we can help our clients review and process old issues in the safety of our office.

They can review their memories in a new way with less pain and more understanding. They can find the gift in the wound or at least relegate the experience to the past.

"The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully" is a poignant and thought-provoking exploration of the emotional, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions of aging. It encourages clinicians to delve deeper into their own understanding of these issues while offering invaluable insights for supporting their clients. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.

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