The Fifth Chapter of Life

(Republished from The Fifth Chapter Blog, original date 7/11/11)

Various writers on the stages of life offer different perspectives depending upon the purpose of their prose. Some are tied to age categories; others to poetry. Each provides some insights. For instance, Shakespeare in his play, “As You Like It”, describes seven stages of life and the last scene of life is “second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” The Talmud lists 14 stages of life, the last few being described in the following manner, “ at seventy for gray hairs, at eighty for special strength, at ninety for decrepitude, and at a hundred a man is as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world.” Rudolph Steiner, an early twentieth century philosopher described a seven stage life process which he linked with astrology. The final seven year period and seventh stage was associated by Steiner with Saturn (56 – 63 years old) “when Saturn completes its second “return” (e.g. comes back to its position it had at one’s birth), and the soul can manifest an even higher element of Self called Spirit Man.”

Indeed, while we do not tend to associate our “second childhood” to such an early age these days, many begin to experience the higher element of “spirit self”. As we age, we can experience a greater awakening of spirit and freedom as we begin to let go of the dross while we allow ourselves to let go of some of our “possible selves”. Laura A. King and Joshua A. Hicks have written about this phenomena of aging in “Whatever Happened to ‘What Might Have Been’” in an October 2007 article published in American Psychologist. Still, in my study of various attempts to categorize Old Age, it is not obvious when the aging adult’s feisty lack of concern about appearances and other people’s opinions can be seen to have turned from a healthy acceptance of limits into an unhealthy stubborn need to hang on when independence is no longer helpful.

So to help sort out the distinction, I have come to think of this stage as the 5th Chapter. This is mostly due to the widely acclaimed book by Gail Sheehy, Passages. Ms. Sheehy admirably calls attention to four stages of adulthood – predictable crisis points – which had not been adequately covered in developmental psychology. Even so, in this book, it is almost as if menopause ends the adult life passage. There is no fifth stage or chapter to cover how to handle the ultimate adult crisis, the decline of adult functions, hence, the 5th Chapter.

But here is the problem. There is no certain cut off age. There is no specific time when we will know we need to hand over the car keys or ask others to pay our bills. It slips up on us. For some, this loss of independence comes over them all at once through a major health crisis. For others, the loss of independence and ability to care for Self, creeps in quietly, slowly and almost imperceptibly.

Yet, there are more people hitting 100 years of age these days. According to the U.S. census the number of people turning 100 in 1990 was 37,000. Ten years later this number had come close to doubling as 72,000 people turned 100 in the 2000 census. There are aging “heros”, like Frances Perenon of Oakland. She was on the pitcher’s mound on June 18th to throw out the first pitch of the Oakland A’s game in honor of her 100th birthday. See the article by Suzanne Bohan, published on June 27, 2011, in the Contra Costa Times, What do you want to be doing for you 100th birthday?

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