Journal of Gerontological Nursing

Guest Editorial 

Wisdom in the Fourth Age

Kathleen E Sherrell, RN, PsyD

Abstract

The group of adults older than 80 are often referred to as the "old-old." Their age cohort has been referred to as the "fourth age." In the past decade in the United States, the fourth-age population increased 33fold. From our youthful perspective, adults in this age bracket have suffered great losses and experienced great strains on their psychological resources. Moreover, in the current, highly economized culture, extremely old adults are thought of as nonproductive members of society. Yet, despite many losses, members of this age group have an ability to look upon life with optimism - an ability defined as wisdom.

Wisdom is an ancient concept, but is not regarded with much attention in this scientifically and economically oriented time. Baltes has been the most prominent theorist of wisdom. According to Baltes, wisdom is expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics (or complexities and uncertainties) of life. For example, older adults have an ability to regulate the subjective effect of healthrelated losses by "transforming reality." This ability stays intact while the physical health of the body declines (Baltes & Smith, 2003).

What are the "wisdom mechanisms" elderly individuals use to nurture their sense of well-being and life satisfaction and to maintain a positive sense of control and optimism? What are the mechanisms we can support in them as well as nurture in ourselves? To understand how one masters the challenges of aging, Baltes and Baltes (1990) proposed the Selection, Optimization and Compensation Model.

Selection is defined as actively or passively reducing the number of activities, goals, or domains to focus on the most important areas. Compensation is using alternative means to reach goals or maintain a desired state once losses have occurred. Optimization is the ability to maximize one's resources in selected domains of functioning. Lang, Rieckmann, and Baltes (2002) state that the art of life in old age consists of the creative search for a new, usually smaller, territory cared for with similar intensity as in the past. They describe a 103-yearold man who was managing his farm until age 75. At that time, because of physical impairments, he switched to taking care of his garden. At 90, when he could barely walk, he focused on his house plants, and still later, on a single plant on the window ledge near his chair in the living room.

Last year, Baltes and Smith (2003) published an article trumpeting "new frontiers in the future of aging." They stipulate that social policy and scientific advances of the past decade have increased life expectancy and improved the quality of life for older adults. However, they argue that these improvements have been most beneficial for those in the third age (ages 60 to 80), the so-called "young-old." Thus, while scientific advances have pushed the limits of aging, they have also had the unintended effect of decreasing the state of human dignity of the old-old. Baltes and Smith said the fourth age is not simply a continuation of the "successful aging" possible in the third age, but rather a distinct group that requires closer attention.

How can we learn about how to live our own lives from the many older adults among us? Older adults are survivors. Their wisdom comes from experience, including tragedy, loss, and pain. Wisdom is a characteristic that increases with age, while other aspects of life are on the decline.

Frankl (1984) described "tragic optimism" as optimism that remains in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which allows for turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment. This is wisdom. Through our collective investment in the concept…

The group of adults older than 80 are often referred to as the "old-old." Their age cohort has been referred to as the "fourth age." In the past decade in the United States, the fourth-age population increased 33fold. From our youthful perspective, adults in this age bracket have suffered great losses and experienced great strains on their psychological resources. Moreover, in the current, highly economized culture, extremely old adults are thought of as nonproductive members of society. Yet, despite many losses, members of this age group have an ability to look upon life with optimism - an ability defined as wisdom.

Wisdom is an ancient concept, but is not regarded with much attention in this scientifically and economically oriented time. Baltes has been the most prominent theorist of wisdom. According to Baltes, wisdom is expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics (or complexities and uncertainties) of life. For example, older adults have an ability to regulate the subjective effect of healthrelated losses by "transforming reality." This ability stays intact while the physical health of the body declines (Baltes & Smith, 2003).

What are the "wisdom mechanisms" elderly individuals use to nurture their sense of well-being and life satisfaction and to maintain a positive sense of control and optimism? What are the mechanisms we can support in them as well as nurture in ourselves? To understand how one masters the challenges of aging, Baltes and Baltes (1990) proposed the Selection, Optimization and Compensation Model.

Selection is defined as actively or passively reducing the number of activities, goals, or domains to focus on the most important areas. Compensation is using alternative means to reach goals or maintain a desired state once losses have occurred. Optimization is the ability to maximize one's resources in selected domains of functioning. Lang, Rieckmann, and Baltes (2002) state that the art of life in old age consists of the creative search for a new, usually smaller, territory cared for with similar intensity as in the past. They describe a 103-yearold man who was managing his farm until age 75. At that time, because of physical impairments, he switched to taking care of his garden. At 90, when he could barely walk, he focused on his house plants, and still later, on a single plant on the window ledge near his chair in the living room.

Last year, Baltes and Smith (2003) published an article trumpeting "new frontiers in the future of aging." They stipulate that social policy and scientific advances of the past decade have increased life expectancy and improved the quality of life for older adults. However, they argue that these improvements have been most beneficial for those in the third age (ages 60 to 80), the so-called "young-old." Thus, while scientific advances have pushed the limits of aging, they have also had the unintended effect of decreasing the state of human dignity of the old-old. Baltes and Smith said the fourth age is not simply a continuation of the "successful aging" possible in the third age, but rather a distinct group that requires closer attention.

How can we learn about how to live our own lives from the many older adults among us? Older adults are survivors. Their wisdom comes from experience, including tragedy, loss, and pain. Wisdom is a characteristic that increases with age, while other aspects of life are on the decline.

Frankl (1984) described "tragic optimism" as optimism that remains in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which allows for turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment. This is wisdom. Through our collective investment in the concept of wisdom, older adults can be transformed from social burdens into role models. They can nurture all of us.

Edwards and Chapman, in their article on pages 16 to 21 of this issue, emphasize the importance of interpersonal communication processes in caring for older adults. Nurses are in an ideal position to offer older adults ways to maximize old age. By listening and respecting the wisdom of older adults and learning from them, nurses will reinforce the positive aspects of the fourth age.

REFERENCES

  • Baltes, RB., & Baltes, M.M. (1990). Psychological perspectives on successful aging: The model of selective optimization with compensation. In P. B. Baltes & M.M. Baltes (Eds.), Successful aging: Perspectives from the behavioral sciences (pp. 1-34). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Baltes, P., & Smith, J. (2003). New frontiers in the future of aging: From successful aging of the young old to the dilemmas of the fourth age. Gerontology, 49, 123-135.
  • Frankl, V. (1984). Man's search for meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Lang, F., Rieckmann, N., & Baltes, M. (2002). Adapting to aging losses: Do resources facilitate strategies of selection, compensation, and optimization in everyday functioning? journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 47B(6), 501-509.

10.3928/0098-9134-20040501-03

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