Growing Old Gifted

Author: Annemarie Roeper
Citation: The following excerpt from The “I” of the Beholder: A Guided Journey to the Essence of a Child, by Annemarie Roeper with Ann Higgins, is reprinted by permission of Great Potential Press. Reprinted in the SENGVine, Gifted Adults edition, January 2012.


The "I" of the Beholder

Much has been said, written, and researched about gifted children and adolescents. Yet there is a dearth of information when it comes to the gifted adult, and giftedness in old age has yet to be mentioned at all. There are many stories about old people: about their loneliness, their surprising longevity, and their ability to continue to participate in social life. In other words, much is said about how they stay young, but not much about how they actually grow old. I’ve seen many people get old and die. Yet I don’t really know what old age is anymore.

What comes after adulthood? Seniorhood? Isn’t that just an older adult? What defines a senior? Getting old and dying keep being postponed. I used to think that old age began at about age of 70. Then people began to stay younger older (or did my perspective just change as I myself aged?). Well, I am too old to figure that out, but I know there is an astonishing difference between my grandparents at 70 and my generation. It is as though the end of the road has moved farther and farther out as I have traveled it. Being an adult covers an ever-larger span of time. People in their seventies are still fully functioning adults, deeply rooted in the day-to-day reality of their world.

Even into our seventies, there is little time to ponder life, death, and eternity—mankind’s eternal concerns. We postpone these thoughts until later. But upon arrival in one’s early eighties, the road that we have been traveling—once well lit, well-described, and well-worn—begins to peter out, until we are left standing in a field, no longer sure of the way. Older old age has not been well described well except as a lack of young age. Now that I am 87, I feel that I am on virgin ground, and there is not much, as far as I know, that can help me and others cope with our experiences.

Most of what I read and observe is based on the idea of staying young as long as we can. While the adolescent is looking forward to being an adult, the old person is trying hard to remain at the stage of the fully capable and participating adult. Much of what I call older old age consists of cumulative losses. You may lose your spouse, your friends, and your relatives (many of whom you’ve known all your life). You lose many of your capacities: your eyesight, your ability to hear, your sense of smell, your driver’s license, and at least some of your memory. You also lose status and respect.

Old age is a time of loss; it can’t be denied—it should not be denied. But many people try in diverse ways to hold on with all their might to their past status. Old age is also a time when people begin to get confused. I feel the confusion might be part of the denial: “If I can no longer really understand the loss, it may not hurt so much.” I personally want to experience this period with open eyes. When you’re old in our society, you don’t really count anymore. You feel demoted. This is a huge problem, actually typical for our society. The rug is pulled from under our feet. I am elaborating on this because I am literally in the middle of this.

So how does one find oneself? Or rather, how do we find our new position in life? Is it a new period of dependency? In some way, it is a repetition of childhood, only instead of having a growing body which is geared toward attaining independence, we have a disintegrating body. We never know how far we are going to sink. When we are children, we look forward to building up, to gaining. At old age, however, we don’t know how far the deterioration is going to go, and if we are gifted, we are especially inclined to watch it with open eyes.

When we are younger, we learn to compensate for our deficiency. We try to fix whatever may be wrong. As we get older, we can’t continue to compensate for everything that we might lose. Rather, we find a way to face the ongoing losses, and we learn how to cope with what we can’t compensate for. Some people find ways of accepting the losses by putting them into a religious framework (“It’s God’s will”). One of the ways the gifted have to cope with life is to look at whatever happens in a most honest way. The gifted do not necessarily seek ways in which to cover up these losses or to compensate for them.

Maybe that’s the task of the gifted older old person: to look at things as they are, without trying to compensate or replace. I will never be young again. I will never drive a car again. My life on this planet is definitely moving toward its very end. This is probably the last stage of my life. Some of my dreams will not ever be fulfilled. In fact, one of the things we give up at old age, or perhaps sooner, is that we have witnessed plenty of change but not much progress, except in certain areas. It’s not true that everything fits into neat dichotomies—good and bad, right and wrong. The universe defies explanation; life itself cannot be explained.

When we reach old age, we have to start giving up some of our hopes. In old age, we realize that we can’t change the universe. Though we may make a great impact on a small part of it, even that impact comes to be seen in the context of a vast, unknowable universe. We don’t have the capacity to really understand life and the universe, but there are ways in which we express that lack of understanding—through poetry, music, and art. These forms of expression resist interpretation. We are mysteries of our own creation.

When we are young, we hope that we will find the stone of wisdom. We spend all our lives trying to crack open the secret of life. In the process, we learn and invent an amazing amount of knowledge. Our vast knowledge has changed the face of the Earth. Yet we never discovered the secret of the Universe. We scrambled along blindly, creating havoc but also much beauty. We are searching, forever driven by a need to know and create, like busy little ants.

From my window I see two highways. Day and night, thousands of cars travel back and forth, and above them is the beauty and mystery the unknown—the stars, the sun and moon. I have lived on this planet for 87 years but have not come any closer to the question I have been asking every day of my life: “What is this life, this universe all about?” Now I know deep in my heart that I will never know the answer. I’m trying to explore this unusual perspective. I think this older old age outlives our framework of definitions. I’ve always had this feeling that I don’t belong and that we can’t really interpret the mystery because we don’t have the capacity for thinking beyond the three familiar dimensions. With old age, we no longer have the ability to look forward to an imagined future. We can’t fix it. And of course, this is a definition of death, the ultimate finality of fate.

There’s no definition of where I am in life now. It’s beyond old—and I can’t write about it because I can’t define it. I’m saying goodbye to the last stage that’s definable. I have never felt this way before. I also feel that there isn’t anybody who can identify with this. The other old people I know are either senile or too firmly rooted in the concrete! I’m living in a twilight world. There is a lack of definition. In younger years, you can get through these times by considering your future, but in old age, there is no more future to imagine. How can you live without the future?

Maybe being beyond old forces us to really understand that the mystery is a reality. What stretches beyond the door of death is an eternity of unknown. Eternity and infinity are concepts that young children often struggle with, but even they soon give up because they can’t find the answer. During our active lifetime, we forget about it. We get so involved with day-to-day living that we don’t see the mysterious universe around us. Living beyond old, with our eyes open, may force us to truly accept the reality of the infinite and eternal, as well as to continue to understand the fact that we can never really know the answer while we are on this earth. So peeking around the door of death, I see the road to eternity and infinity as the reality I need to live now. From traveling miles and miles of earthly road, I have gained the wisdom to accept the unknown, not only as the past and the present, but also as my only future.

So my conclusion is that when you reach the age beyond old, your only reality is the unknown. This has actually always been true, but many have been able to avoid it up until this point. We don’t even really know the past or the present, let alone whether what one feels as a living Self will remain as such or transform into further unknowns. Integrating these understandings as a reality may be the definition of “beyond old age.”

Gifted elders have to keep their minds trained carefully and keep on using them. In fact, I think that preservation of the mind has an additional task: it serves to maintain the Self and its independence. Keeping a sharp mind becomes a way of preserving one’s freedom and control. Just as I consciously watch every step I take so that I won’t fall, I watch every thought I think so that I can keep control. But the need for control is also a form of mistrust. There is a point at which we must give up that control, and the only people to whom we can trustingly give it up are those who love us unconditionally.

As I reread this chapter, with which I have been struggling for a long time, I realize that I have accepted the modern concept of old age—namely, that there is really no place in our bustling reality for it. As we age, we become ”seniors,” not the “wise elders“ whose advice is sought and respectfully listened to. We are put into retirement homes. In fact, our children put us there. We are often not considered fully responsible anymore.

However, I am sure there are many among the elderly who have accumulated much wisdom, but no one asks their advice. Congress does not have a section for “elders.” Occasionally, one hears of elder statesmen, but we have no official place for them. We don’t hear in Congress, “The ‘elder’ stateswoman from Hawaii wishes to speak.” What would happen if every administration had an elected council of elder statespeople? Of course, they may have the same limitations as others, but chances are that they might bring a spiritual dimension, a view from the greater distance. Most of all, elders have less of a personal agenda, because they have lived their life and done their work. They are retired.

What opportunities do we miss by not hearing our elders, and what heightened experiences do they miss by us not allowing them to play their appropriate role in society? How much wisdom goes down the drain unused? In personal terms, I probably have more opportunity to be heard because I am still active in my work with gifted children, and I am listened to because my knowledge is defined and specific. Let us just remember how many parents and grandparents take care of their grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They are the unsung heroes. I would like to end my remarks with a salute to old age.

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Annemarie Roeper, Ed.D., was an educational consultant with more than 60 years of specializing in the needs of gifted and creative children and adults. In 1941, she and her husband, George, founded the Roeper School for Gifted Children in Michigan, one of the nation’s oldest and best-known private schools for gifted young people. In 2007, Dr. Roeper was chosen as the first to be videotaped in the NAGC’s “Portraits in Gifted Education: The Legacy Series.” She continued to be active working with many parent groups as well as individual gifted children and adults until her death in May of 2012. See SENG Director Joy Navan’s tribute: “In Tribute: Annmarie Roeper: 1918-2012.”

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