“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
Among my preferred thought-talk shows are National Pubic Radio’s Fresh Air, with Terry Gross, and The Diane Rehm Show. Their interviews and conversations with authors, actors, musicians, political leaders, and others always hold my interest and leave me feeling that I have engaged in a worthwhile listening activity. Thus, upon hearing that Ms. Rehm will retire during the coming year left me feeling a bit sad and surprised. I wonder if others among the 2.4 million listeners that tune into her show each week feel likewise?
In truth, I had no idea that Diane has reached the age of seventy-nine. Yes, her voice sounds older, but I always thought that was due to spasmodic voice dysphonia disorder, which she has suffered with for years. Otherwise, she is alert, vibrant, and is by no means showing any signs of cognitive aging.
What really caught my ear when I heard Steve Inskeep of NPR Morning Edition speak with her earlier this week, was her continuing zest for life and list of future projects. She plans to work through the upcoming presidential campaign, she shared that after retiring from her show, she will work for UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, continue to work and advocate for a cure for Parkinson’s, create a series of podcasts, and more.
“Voila!” I thought immediately.“A gifted elder’s bucket list!”
The concept of bucket lists is not a new phenomenon – the To Do list of tasks one wants to accomplish before one dies. For some, popular desires include such activities as, visit the Acropolis, skydive, or kayak down the Amazon. While these and similar wishes are understandable, it is my belief that gifted elders have lists that – even though they may include some of the same activities – are qualitatively different.
Age wise, I share the same decade as Diane Rehm, although I have not yet reached the cusp of eighty years as has she. My life has been full as well as fulfilling. During my seven decades, I have known the love of a good man, shared the joys of raising children, held our only grandchild in my arms, written, enjoyed three (yes three!) rewarding professions, enjoyed traveling, and lived in three different countries and many different states. Yet, I still have a bucket list and it continues to grow. And I suspect that the experience of many gifted elders is the same.
What does my bucket list look like? At the top of my list is the desire to continue to learn and grow spiritually. Additionally, I hope to write another book, to finish my thesis in Clinical Psychology and begin a therapy practice, to continue to refresh and improve my Spanish, to review and re-learn French, to learn Italian, to learn to play the piano, to re-learn the guitar, to improve my singing voice that once was acceptable, to read every single book in my library and on my Kindle as well as those on my wishlist. I am sure I could list more, but that is what occurs to me off the top of my head.
The difference with the bucket lists of gifted elders, in my opinion, is rooted in a number of traits of gifted individuals. A primary characteristic of the gifted is the construct of asynchrony. Essentially, the term means that many gifted individuals do not develop in a stair step fashion as described by common stage theories, where one stage naturally follows the other. Rather, in the gifted, we often see leaps of cognitive growth that are not accompanied by the same leap of social or emotional development. In a young gifted child, we might observe a seven year-old who thinks on the level of a fourteen year-old, but has emotional meltdowns similar to the frustration tantrums of three year-olds. Or, we may observe emotional empathy and understanding beyond a child’s years.
In terms of late adulthood, Erik Erikson’s stage theory of development, describes how individuals progress psychosocially from the stage of generativity, in which our creative productivity is at its zenith (usually during the years 40 to 65), to integrity, where we review our lives and see ourselves as accomplished and prepare ourselves for our final years (65+). In gifted elders, however, because of asynchrony and coupled with the intellectual imperative of giftedness, the aging gifted may experience a mix of these stages beginning even earlier and continuing throughout the lifespan. We should not be surprised then, when our aging parents or friends continue to pursue or begin new projects of intellectual and creative interest late in life.
It has been my pleasure for during the past fifty years to work with gifted individuals. Early on, I realized that gifted behavior consists of the blending of three constructs – strong intellectual ability, goal-directed task commitment, and the need for creative productivity. These behaviors will persist in our gifted elders and we must continue to nurture and to celebrate them!