Plenary Abstracts

The Existential Gravity of Ageing 

Frits de Lange, PhD

My presentation consists of two parts. The first part deals with suffering of ageing: is old age synonymous to unnecessary suffering and should it be banned as a full stage of life in its own right? The second part with the question how to cope with suffering in ageing, once acknowledged that suffering is inevitable and old age is a meaningful trajectory in the life course.

Part 1. Old age as an equivalent of suffering to be eliminated, is a well-known scheme of thought in contemporary culture. ‘Ageing is a disease, disease is suffering, and suffering should be minimized.’ The argument is evident in transhumanism, but also at the background of gerontological models of positive, successful ageing; in the dichotomy of the third versus the fourth age in popular culture; and in the theory of compression of morbidity as a health policy strategy. I argue that this approach is understandable from a utilitarian point of view, but functions at the same time as an ideology: it obscures and denies the reality and complexity of the human condition.

Part 2. If we want to stay human in the future (it is not evident that we will) we have to accept and deal with the suffering in old age - the focus in my second part. Suffering can at best be conceived in terms of an existential threat to the integrity of the self. This is not just a matter of definition, but a fundamental ethical choice. We will need an inside perspective on suffering in ageing. An existential gerontology does justice to the lived experience of people, in helping them to find a meaningful relationship to their own ageing. Suffering entails the embodied experience of the broken dialogue between the self and the world. It is often experienced as a lack of control and as loss. Old age can be understood as the radicalization and intensification of the human condition. Suffering in old age is not distinctive, compared to other stages of life. 

The biblical story of Job exemplifies how suffering in old age might be endured: in pain and distress, rebellion and resistance, silence and dialogue, presence and compassion, perplexity, and, eventually, acquiescence. 

The Dark Side of Ageing: lessons from older people who have a sense that their life is no longer worth living 

Els van Wijngaarden, PhD

Due to great advances in healthcare, more and more people reach deep old age. Nowadays, many people view a longer life as a mixed blessing. We collectively embrace the so-called vital ‘third age’, but we tend to turn our backs to the frail ‘fourth age’. Indeed, there is a widespread aversion when it comes to facing the realities of deep old age. Growing old is increasingly associated with loneliness, uselessness, meaninglessness and suffering. 

Drawing on several empirical research projects that I conducted in recent years, I will talk about the darker side of ageing. I start by addressing a phenomenological question: what is it like to life with a deep sense that life is no longer worth living? Using first-person narratives, my aim is to bring into view some central features of experiences of meaninglessness and suffering. 

Next, I will explore the existential and ethical implications of being confronted with manifestations of meaninglessness and suffering that cannot be solved or remedied. In such situations people (both older persons themselves, their loved ones and health care professionals) find themselves emotionally and personally committed but also vulnerable and powerless. I will argue that mainstream ethical and gerontological theory do not provide us with proper frameworks to think through these experiences, since these theories often take an ideal, autonomous and rational actor as point the departure. This may function well in the domain of interventions to guide actions and enlighten practices, but falls short in situations where people are confronted with deep suffering and the tragic. An alternative approach that departs from an ethical subject conceived of as intrinsically relational and vulnerable – the ethics of care – may provide a more suitable framework and discourse to think through the implications of encountering situations of deep suffering. 

Rather than identifying a set of resources for overcoming meaninglessness and suffering, I will conclude my talk with trying to think toward an ethics of suffering. I will argue that recognizing and contemplating the gravity of old age is of utmost importance not only for ethical theory, but also for social gerontology and further humanization of care for older people.