Skip to main content

Experiencing Aging: A Social Group Worker’s Self-Reflection

Experiencing Aging: A Social Group Worker’s Self-Reflection

Catherine P. Papell, MSW, DSW, Adelphi University


Note: This paper is based on a presentation in 2006 when Dr. Papell was 90 years old.

The concept “experiencing aging” is different than ‘’aging’. It is a proactive state of being. It is not theory. Rather it is what exists uniquely in the mind and heart of each elderly member. Group workers are ever seeking to find it in their group members and to help the members find it in themselves and in each other.

A human group might be considered a very human process of finding commonality about something without loss of uniqueness. Sharing uniqueness makes commonality possible. It makes possible mutuality — mutual aid. Human relationship in group is the finding of some complex, perhaps invisible patterns of commonality that support uniqueness – that support and hopefully strengthen the self.

In a group of elderly and aging persons, each views his/her aging in a unique way. How can one enable aging people in a group to find commonality unless one can help each to find and share how each is thinking and feeling and doing about this very complicated aspect of living – moving closer and closer to ending living. Above all else a group worker must listen…. must listen carefully for the cues.

This presentation is not a research study about aging. The only quantitative aspect of it can be found in my birth certificate. It might be called qualitative research because I have gathered all the data that I can recall or can tolerate concerning my thinking, feeling and doing about my aging, I have tried to make some order of it and find some words to name aspects of it. In that case it might be called “theory of my life at this moment”, but there is still more data to be added and perhaps the “theory” will still be modified.

Also this is only my data, no one else’s. If an energetic researcher wishes to know how many other aging persons think similarly, so be it. Or at what age does the thinking change? So be it. Or how does group life affect the thinking of the aging person? So be it.

I am here as a specimen, an object, not to talk theoretically about adult aging but to share how I experience it, my uniqueness. As I look at you who are gathered at this moment, you look wonderfully young. Some of you in this group are delightfully unconnected with what will be the aging part of your life. Others of you are somewhat aware of where you are in your total life span. Wherever you are in regard to aging, every one of you is entirely unique. What I will say is not “theory”, not the essentials of commonality about aging, rather my very special way of, shall I say “coping.” Certainly there will be some commonality in it but the pattern is my own..…

When I began to think explicitly about myself in the aging aspect of my life and collect the data and put it in some written form, it was because I had been invited to be a “subject” for a professional meeting at which two distinguished social work faculty members were to present knowledge about the theory of aging to be taught to students who are entering the profession. What was interesting to me was how different what I had to say was from the excellent and knowledgeable PowerPoint presentations about what social workers ought to know in order to work effectively with their aging clients. There I was, from the other side of the fence, being asked to bring to life the knowledge and theory of aging.

I thought of some questions about aging a student might have in mind and of course would be reluctant or afraid to ask. They are in fact questions a person who is experiencing aging asks him/her self:

*Are you afraid of dying? I remember when my mother was trying to say something about dying and no one would allow her talk about it. “You’re ok, Mom.” Who was afraid of dying?
*How do you feel when one of your beloved friend dies? It is often said that older people get so accustomed to death that they do not feel deeply about the loss. I have lost several beloved group work friends recently and I weep the loss.
*Do you ever get tired of the physical pain and anguish and wish to die? Of course!
*How do you react to the terrible reality of this world today? Horrified and terrified for the future of my grandchildren.
*Do you still want to do something about it? I cannot do much but maybe there is something I can do, and I must. But it is so difficult..…
*Do you experience resigning from action and giving up on the world? Of course, but not quite.
*Do you find yourself being out of sync with your grandchildren, being unable to select a gift for them? It is terribly frustrating and I adore them, but what I once loved is often not for them.

Here is what I wrote for that meeting, and I share it with you now with some revisions and elaborations:
You have heard today about AGING from our contemporary social work educators and colleagues, old and new concepts and theories about the helping process when the clients are and the social problems pertain to elderly people. I am one month short of 90 years old; I began as a social worker in the settlement movement in 1940 and as a social work educator 49 years ago in 1957.

It is a pleasure for me to talk about aging, not to teach as the social work educator I once was, but as an “object lesson” in aging, as a person who is experiencing that particular part of the life process that is the subject today. Please note that I am using the verb “experience” as an active verb. I am not speaking about aging inactively as something that is being done to me.

I take heart in some statistical findings:
;:•Life expectancy has increased since 1900 from the middle 40’s to 76.1 years of age. I was born in 1916.

•The number of people over 65 in 2000 was in excess of 34 million and is projected to rise to 70 million (20% of the population) by 2030.
•The largest increase is occurring among those older than 85 (Administration on Aging, 2000) (Ronch and Goldfield)

Since I have lived past 85 I have a greater chance than many other elderly persons to still live longer!

Therein is the message I have to share with you today: Despite how hard aging is, despite the pain, frustration, continual loss, constant uncertainty, heart wrenching decisions and choices, despite the growing dependence and the recognition of frailty, despite one’s growing inability to say what one wants to say because the words cannot be found, despite renewed feelings of incompetence that have roots in one’s whole life history that must be worked on again and again, I still desire to live longer: I am not ready to leave this world and I am not ready to die. People say: “Old age is not for sissies.” “Old age sucks.” “It’s a pain in the ass.” But I am not ready to” throw in the sponge” on the excitement of living… I can still find things in this world to be very excited about (although I must say it sometimes surprises me and I have to work a bit at it).

In my search, with the help of my friends and loved ones, for poetry to assist me in saying what I want to say, this appeared:

“If only, when one heard
That Old Age was coming
One could bolt the door,
Answer “Not at home”
And refuse to meet him.” Anonymous Japanese

If only…. but one cannot…

I ask myself, “Is it possible for there to be quality of life in old age?” “Quality of life” without an adjective but perceived as a positive? Perhaps. The commonly heard refrain, in the grocery store or barber shop or in the street, ”It is better than the alternative” suggests that, in the elusive balance in life for which we humans must struggle: between birth and death, between good and evil, between peace and war, between justice and injustice, and on and on, there prevails a definite affirmation of life and humanness. It is good, or can be good despite the physical deterioration, to be alive, to value living in one’s self and with one’s fellow human beings. For me the concept of “experiencing aging” is helpful. It is true that life has brought me to this point of growing old and confronting dying. I cannot change that, but what do I do with this moment in my own life process? What kind of control over my own destiny, that which I have sought through out my life every time I have made a choice or taken a new and specific direction of my own choice on my own pathway, what kind of control do I have now? Several ways of thinking and reflecting, ways of emotionally responding, ways of doing have occurred to me in exploring and experiencing aging in myself. I will share them with you now…

1. Seeing life as process
2. Recognizing the finality
3. Affirming my own spirituality
4. Finding new passions

It is very important for me in experiencing aging to draw upon my very powerful sense of life as “process”. Please note that I earned an MSW at the University of Pennsylvania, the “functional school”, with Virginia Robinson and Jessie Taft. Let us remind ourselves that being in process, according to Webster, means being in”…a phenomenon which shows a continuous change in time” or an “act of proceeding, progress, advance”. Process thinking about one’s own life is the maintaining a very keen awareness or perception of what came before and what is coming afterward, whether it is known, or knowable and not known, or unknowable. In our thinking our brain often gets caught up, or needs to, in a particular encounter, an event, a fact, perhaps a truth, an idea, perhaps a feeling, and gets trapped, snared or preoccupied, and has trouble regaining the sense of process and process thinking. Aging is not just an event. It is a phase in a life process, and not an easy one.

We social workers have struggled greatly with process thinking (or perhaps I should say non-process thinking). Early in the last century, in our great need for understanding the intrapsychic factors in human behavior, we grasped Freudian Psychology with its deterministic approach to the psyche. Many years were required to incorporate the concept of Hartmann’s “ego functions functioning”, the process of the ego defending the psyche. Still later Erik Erickson transformed behavioral growth into an epigenetic developmental process, “stages of life development”. In their own old age, Erickson, with his wife, Joan Erickson wrote of their recognition that in one’s life process, including old age, one can go back to the early relationships and rework unfinished or unresolved developmental tasks. For the Erickson’s this was the route to wisdom. Such process thinkers as Hartmann, and Erickson, and I might add my mentors, Taft and Robinson, invited or required social workers to join them with their process theories.

Social Work also had the process problem with research. If our students and their instructors failed to incorporate quantitative research into their basic professional activity, how could we as a profession present our practice as truly reliable? Could we prove that we really had helped our clients? It was then that qualitative research, which is process research, began tentatively to be recognized. And I believe, from my occasion reading in the journals, qualitative research is now seen not only as a valid component in our scholarly research efforts, but as a very appropriate kind of research for our profession. In the history of our educational system, this has been a struggle for process thinking.

We have also had to learn to escape being caught in using knowledge deterministically, as absolute without process. A study of our social work literature can show us the route by which we began to take into account that knowledge and information are not absolute. Even the most exact of these are influenced and informed by the perception of the mind of the user and the viewer. In other words there is process thinking in knowing.

Process thinking as a mind set is a necessity for living fully in old age: for owning one’s own choices, even those that one might regret, one’s own routes and detours, precious or not, and for perceiving how they make sense as the ending phase of the process continues. It is a new –old experience in knowing “who I am”.

So I, in my 90th year, continue to draw upon process thinking to aid me in experiencing aging. This is my life and I do not want to skip or loose a piece of the process, difficult as it may be to stay with it. And each piece has its own unique challenge, pain and/or reward.

I heard a Chinese American author say, “The Chinese in me wants to be old; the American in me wants to be young.” Culturally I too yearn occasionally to be young again. Why should not I also long for lost youth and wish to change aging to youth? One of the most repeated spams on my e-mail is telling how to get Viagra quickly and cheaply. Culturally, we aging people are not supposed to accept the finality, the reality of aging. We are told to exercise often and properly. AARP offers us “Tips for Healthy Memory Improvement”. These include “Brain Exercise: pay attention, memorize, think…” This may be a somewhat reassuring guide for the struggle with the body’s aging losses and pain. However I call this cultural denial. It does not alter the truth that finality of life is real. And that finality is death.

James Hillman, the Jungian Psychologist, in “The Force of Character and the Aging Life”, speaks directly, profoundly and with incredible fullness to the infinite ways by which humans have managed through the ages and are now managing with aging and its finality.

Let me tell you a story. One day when I was feeling quite blue, (you clinicians will know what that means) I sat down and listlessly started to read the above book by Hillman that my son had given me. As I read, it was as if the sky had lifted. For Hillman, old age is “…a structure with its own essential nature”. He writes that the last years confirm and fulfill character.  Character, for Hillman, is not moral structure or personality. It is that which shapes genetic inheritance “…into our own peculiar pattern, that specific composition of traits, foibles, delights, and commitments, that identifiable figure bearing our name, our history, and a face that mirrors a ‘me’” Hillman continues, “As character directs aging, aging reveals character.” (I refer back to what I said earlier about the uniqueness in how one thinks, feels and acts about aging in one’s own life.)

That which created so much excitement for me and seemed almost therapeutic at that moment was Hillman’s proposal that, in one’s own unique way, it is possible to experience three stages in the structure of the aging period of one’s life. He called these three stages: Lasting, Leaving and Left.

Lasting is a period of desire to live as long as one can, with energy and excitement about doing it. It is not, says Hillman, that “ …longevity should be extended, if that extension merely adds more days of pain, sorrow, and incapacity. We need rather to extend the idea of extension. We need to broaden and deepen our thinking.”(My italics)

Leaving finds the awareness of the physical symptoms converting to functions of character. Hillman says, “The move from lasting to leaving changes our basic attitude from holding on to letting go.” Identifying nine physiological aspects of aging, (Hillman is willing to call them physical “rot”), he finds intriguing and even delightful ways to transform each into psychological experiences that maintain the unique pattern of the “me”.
Left is the very uniqueness of the character claiming its final image, which one leaves behind in the hearts of others.

In my depressed moment I suddenly realized that the euphoria of “lasting’ that had consumed me was beginning to escape me. With the conceptualizing of aging as stages, and such humanly viable stages, I grasped new perception and understanding of what I was experiencing in my own aging process.

Slowly I have read the whole book and have continued to find Hillman’s perception of aging enlightening, Though I confess to reading the chapters on “left” reluctantly, I have found his remarkable knowledge of the human condition, wrapped as it is in the Jungian scholarship of the ages, aesthetically gratifying. I have found myself better able to build finality into my mind-set about aging.

After retiring from teaching at the age of seventy (by order of the famous disastrously famous president), I worked for 15 years as Family Consultant at the Nassau County Medical Center’s Outpatient Alcohol Clinic. There I came to respect deeply the concept of “higher power” and its psychological viability in the treatment of addictions. I am not a religious person but I am and always have been a deeply spiritual person. I began in a new way to reflect on spirituality; on the fascinating variety of ways our clients used or resisted the concept “higher power”. I learned about humility, ”a sense of something greater”, from my AA colleagues in the Clinic. Without humility one’s mind is not open to learn, and learning it desperately vital until the last moment!!

I myself do not find comforting the idea of “God’s will”, but I know and value deeply the comfort that it gives to many whom I truly love. I call much in my aging life LUCK, good fortune, and fate. (Today I might add genes.) There is much beyond one’s control that one cannot change, and that just “happens”. There is much that can produce awe and wonder: the magnificence of the natural world, one flower, the mocking bird that sings from the roof top on my street in the early morning (each song is new), a Chopin Nocturne, a friend’s kind deed and thought, the life processes in my garden, and on and on….

Death is an ultimate step and it does indeed contradict the notion of process. Many individuals and most religious faiths resolve this by believing there is some kind of life after death. I myself do not find this a comforting belief, but even if one does believe in an after life of some kind, still living itself is a process that we can learn about, reflect about with others, be conscious of, write about, and struggle with. My friend Eva, a women my age who is profoundly deaf and blind, but who continues each summer to lead a “show-and-tell” summer service at my Unitarian Universalist congregation, was telling me by phone why she enjoys the show-and-tell so much. She says, “The body does not stay alive but other people’s memories of each of us work their way into their consciousness and stay alive in ways you have no control over”. I think James Hillman, would say “Amen” to Eva. That is indeed a description of the stage that he calls Left.

I have two new passions and one long buried. First there is the buried one that I have dug up from time to time, the weight of which I could never quite sustain – playing the piano. I have finally experienced being able to make music and share it, very simple music but beautiful, two Chopin Preludes and a Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song. It is difficult for any one to understand how important it is to me. That is why I call it a passion.

A new passion is my connection with my Afghan American young women friends whom I have known, mostly by e-mail, since 9/11. I forward to my family and friends and colleagues, the Women for Afghan Women’s (WAW) fascinating e-mail about what is happening in Afghanistan with women’s struggle for human rights and some of the projects in Afghanistan that they have promoted to enable women there to survive. The e-mail also tells much about what is not happening since our government has abandoned our promises to Afghanistan’s nation building efforts. I have helped my Afghan American women friends to distribute their beautiful book, Women for Afghan Women: Sharing Myths and Claiming the Future, at Library Readings held in Queens. I have assisted in planning neighborhood meetings and programs. My small e-mail project and support was cited by the Queensboro Council on Social Welfare, the United Way, and the NASW (NYC Chapter) at the Annual Reception Honoring Queens Social Workers. This has been a very modest way by which I have been able to gain and disseminate respect and understanding about Islam and, perhaps to create some bridges in my community against injustice and intolerance. It is also my deep professional pleasure and satisfaction that is being gratified and I have been rewarded by my friendships with these beautiful young women…

My third passion is doodling with tiny cross-stitches and colored threads to make bookmarks for my friends and family. I have made at least one hundred and fifty; each one is different. I do it in the evening while watching TV. I find it fun and aesthetically pleasing in a very modest way!!

Passions, new and old, are vital in the aging process – in the continuing defining of one’s own character.

I have shared with you these particular aspects of my living at almost 90, holding on to process thinking, facing quite directly the finality of death, clarifying my own spirituality and finding passions. These seem to me to be basic,or at least important, to experiencing aging.

I ask myself, “Why have I bared my soul today with so much of what I am thinking and feeling and doing about experiencing my aging?” I think it is because you are my colleagues. You are all social workers, specifically group workers, and I love our profession. It was right for me when I was young and searching for a place for myself in this world. It has always been right for me. I have enjoyed the societal role. It contains my necessary connection with humanness, an appropriate place for compassion, and a fascinating intellectual challenge, connecting reason and intuition for purposeful uses. I am terribly pained by the state of the world, by what humans are doing to humans. I do believe that social work’s multiple skills, knowledge and values will continue to be precious to humans in their collective living. Where else does humanness emerge?

Bear with me while I read a favorite poem by Stanley Kunitz, Poet Laureate, when he was 90+ years old. He died recently at 100.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night, when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice directed me:
“Live in the layers, not in the litter.”
Though I lack the art to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Some beautiful books on experiencing aging:

Erickson, E., Erickson, J., & Kivnick, H. Vital Involvement in Old Age. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Hillman, J. The Force of Character and the Lasting Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

Moody, H.R. “Conscious Aging: A Strategy for Positive Change in Later Life.” Mental Wellness in Aging.

Pipher, M. Another Country: Navigating The Emotional Terrain Of Our Elders. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.

Ronch, J.L. & Goldfield, J.A. Mental Wellness in Aging: Strengths-Based Approaches. Baltimore: Health Professions Press, 2003.

Schachter, Z., & Miller, R.S. From age-ing to sage-ing: A Profound New Vision Of Growing Older. New York: Warner Books, 1995.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Papell, C. (2006). Experiencing aging: A social group worker’s self-reflection. Retrieved [date accessed] from /recollections/experiencing-aging-a-social-group-worker%E2%80%99s-self-reflection/.

One Reply to “Experiencing Aging: A Social Group Worker’s Self-Reflection”

  1. Dear Leslye: I am sorry but I did not learn about your comment until recently. If you would e-mail me something about the movie and how others might obtain a copy or view it, I would consider putting a note about the movie on the Papell entry. Thank you, Jack Hansan

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.