Aging with Agency: Building Resilience, Confronting Challenges, and Navigating Eldercare

By Sandi Peters. North Atlantic Books, 2020. 304 pages. $17.95/paperback; $12.99/eBook.

Aging with Agency is a valuable field guide for those of us of a certain age whose attention gradually shifts from the landscape of our public lives to our inner private world. Our earlier lives involved the making and managing of things, what we did, and what others could see of us, as we met our personal needs and proceeded through stages of development. But as we age, we reflect on the meaning of all that activity. How did these things fit into the fabric of our lives? What do we value in them now, these many years later?

Peters offers several ways of finding meaning in the events of our lives as we move through our aging process. She begins with Carl Jung, who used the word archetype to describe different aspects of our personality, including our persona (what we present to the world), our shadow (what we keep hidden), and our anima/animus (our feminine side and our masculine side). Our task is to integrate these aspects into what Jung called the “self,” the center around which we organize our internal and external worlds, enabling us to be whole and complete persons. 

Jung identified 12 primary motivational forces (archetypes) in our collective unconscious: Ruler, Artist, Caregiver, Innocent, Sage, Explorer, Outlaw, Magician, Hero, Lover, Jester, and Everyman. Joseph Campbell has written extensively about the hero’s journey, where life is an adventure in which we get lost, get rescued, find a treasure, and bring it home to our community. Personally, I identify with the image of Caregiver as an organizing theme for my life.

Peters moves on to a discussion of the work of Abraham Maslow, who organized our personal needs into a pyramid starting with physical survival and then advancing upward to the needs for love and belonging; self-esteem; meaning and knowledge; appreciation of beauty; self-fulfillment; and finally transcendence, where we are committed to something beyond our personal needs. Peters suggests that this model is useful in helping us understand our personal needs within the context of our lives. When I was in the hospital intensive care unit in February, my personal need was totally focused on survival. Safely home with family and friends, I again could give attention to the higher levels of fulfillment and transcendence.

Social scientist Joan Erikson, in her nineties after her husband Erik died, revisited their eight stages of life development. The Erikson stages of psychosocial development started with trust vs. mistrust, then moved up to autonomy vs. shame and doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, and finally, integrity vs. despair. When she revisited those stages of development, Erikson re-engaged with the negative feelings of mistrust, shame, doubt, guilt, inferiority, role confusion, isolation, stagnation, and despair. As she struggled to face and resolve them, she found herself moving towards “gerotranscendence, which she named as the ninth stage of development. In Erikson’s theory, gerotranscendence means the act of facing and accepting both sides of the equation, both positive and negative, welcoming all that life brings to us each day. 

Peters describes the many ways we can explore our interior lives by using the meditative practices taught by the world’s religions. For example, there is the Jesus Prayer, to be repeated with each breath. Or one can read a poem such as Rumi’s “The Guest House” and then sit quietly and meditate on the words. Friends use a variety of centering practices to settle into a quiet state of waiting for guidance.

The last section of Aging with Agency is devoted to an exploration of institutional care for our elderly relatives and, eventually, care for ourselves when we arrive at the day when we need help. Peters discusses the various types of residential facilities as well as the idea of aging in place, or staying in our own home. Peters speaks with the authority of being deeply informed and seasoned with years of professional experience in the field of care of the elderly. Institutional care facilities focus on safety and on keeping residents clean and dry, but tend to neglect the need for a full realization of what Jung called the self, what Maslow called transcendence, or what Erikson called gerotranscendence. Peters underscores the importance of our being advocates for our elderly who are residents of care facilities.

I was recovering from a serious accident when Aging with Agency came to my hands. Using it as a guide, I gained new insights into the meaning of the various events and pivot points in my life journey. Thank you, Sandi Peters.

Brad Sheeks, at age 84, is a member of Newtown (Pa.) Meeting. A retired co-leader (with Pat McBee) of the Friends General Conference Couple Enrichment program, he is also retired from hospice nursing.

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