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Aging: A Migratory Experience
By Steven T. Dahlberg

The Phoenix – November 1997

St. Paul, Minnesota, USA — For some, migrating to a new country is an escape, and ultimately a release from the old. For others, their migratory experience is of pure necessity – a means of survival – and one in which they always long for a return home.

Unlike many of our ancestors, most of us will never have this extreme kind of migratory experience – that is, finding ourselves permanently in a new country, unable to communicate and ultimately, figuring out how to live this new life.

However, we have all found ourselves in various new places - whether physically or mentally - including new jobs, new neighborhoods, new cities, new marriages, new relationships, divorces and deaths.

These experiences require skills for adapting, changing and imagining new possibilities.

Today, the speed of change demands that we actively participate in creating our lives and futures, no matter what age we are, instead of just responding to them. It demands that we learn to think like migrants – to think creatively, to improvise and adapt as we find ourselves amidst life’s “discontinuities.”

Becoming migrant thinkers will be a necessity as America’s 77 million Baby Boomers begin to retire, and the older-old (over 100) continue to increase in numbers, as well as live more years than ever before.

The migrant is often a popular image among authors and artists. Michael Higgins, Ireland’s Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, described to a Minneapolis audience last spring the life of the Irish emigrants to America, and how they impacted their new lands.

His remarks led me to think about the relevance of the migrant metaphor to the ageing process and life’s transitions, and his ideas serve as a starting point for this comparison of migrants and ageing persons – both of whom can use their creativity to improve their quality of life.

“No people can ever fully define itself from within,” said Higgins. “Irish people discover themselves to be such only on the streets of a foreign country. No one knows what his country is until he has been out of it, experiencing the life of another for the purpose of contrast and comparison.”

In other words, the Irish discovered what it really meant to be Irish when they emigrated to another country.

Often, we discover who we are and find the greatest meaning in our lives only by leaving “home” – the earlier periods of our lives – for a “foreign country” – our becoming older. Here we can begin to place our pasts into the context of our whole lives and the lives of others.

As we age, we can come to better understand the meaning of our childhood, young adulthood and middle-agehood. We may look back sometimes with fondness and sometimes with regret. But the memories and their relevance to now create new meaning as we adapt to being in a new place at a new time.

“Exile is the cradle of nationality,” according to Higgins. We should “presuppose a sort of dialogue among exiles” who are together in a new place, he said.

Viewing ageing as “exile” provides a positive spin on exile, offering a new perspective that allows older people to better understand their common “nationality” of what it means to be fully human – to be part of a greater whole.

“The truly great periods of [creative] expression have manifested themselves at those points where cultures converge and cross-fertilize,” Higgins said.

We may be facing a renaissance where an intergenerational convergence will create and implement totally new kinds of projects, combining freshness with experience. We have never witnessed what this new combination will look like.

When the old and the young begin to learn together, think together and grow together, they will create intergenerational experiences where the sum of the outcome is far greater than the individual parts.

“Exile was always implicit in the search for individual freedom,” Higgins said.

Creative persons at any age have been described as “a minority of one,” according to creativity educator E. Paul Torrance. Seniors who seek to express themselves creatively, to act upon their own perceived alternatives, may feel negatively exiled in environments that are very structured and scheduled, like nursing homes.

Expressing creativity does not mean having no structure. It does mean being open to letting people accomplish their goals and wishes in ways that feed their passions and purposes – however great or small –within existing structures. This provides a sense of control, and also helps them find meaning in their lives.

Migrants “felt freer to become themselves in foreign places,” said Higgins. “Many artists felt themselves repressed and even suffocated by local conditions (in their homeland).”

We need to purposely become migrants over and over again in order to integrate new material into our lives – to learn. Creative thinking can help anyone become a migrant thinker and be able to purposefully make “the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” and thus to make new and different connections and creations.

Perhaps seniors feel this freedom to “become themselves” after their children are grown, after they retire or after their spouse dies. They may feel freer to express what they truly think and believe, and pursue totally different kinds of hobbies, volunteering or even new careers.

If ageing people felt unable to express their creativity in their work, they now may have opportunities and encouragement in retirement to manifest their creative goals and dreams. People often ignore and under use their creativity until it is encouraged, so we are challenged to tap their intrinsic motivation for creating and engaging in life.

Migrants and those in exile often experience a “note of banishment,” according to James Joyce.

Traditionally, retirement and old age often meant banishment from being a meaningful and relevant contributor to society. In the new world of ageing, banishment from our old way of living to a “creative worldview” can mean generating fresh opportunities, following unintended paths and finding unexpected happiness.

“Some of the greatest works of literature have been written by exiles who wished by an act of imagination to define the components of that place from which they had been estranged,” said Higgins.

Ageing persons may be seeking a chance to engage their imagination and produce a “great work” – whether that means starting a new business, changing daily routines or adapting better after the death of a loved one.

“Bohemia is the artist’s only homeland,” said Higgins, “and Bohemia by very definition is filled with nomads and exiles.”

Will retirement become the Boomers’ “New Bohemia” as they wander this new exile of retirement? Boomers are different than other ageing cohorts, according to Professor Fernando Torres-Gil of the University of California School of Public Policy and Social Research.

Boomers have a thirst for information and knowledge, he said, along with a desire to know their world. With the benefit of more medical advances than any previous cohort, Boomers can expect to live to be 75 or 80 with little disability. Most Boomers will have the ability, and sometime necessity, to work well beyond “formal” retirement. This will require us to continually redefine the meaning of jobs, work and ways of contributing.

“All people are immigrants from the past to the present,” according to anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. Therefore, we all need to be able to explore, to invent and to adapt – to compose a life.

Steven T. Dahlberg is a creativity trainer and consultant. He has designed and taught creativity courses in the graduate education program at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.


Copyright ©2016 Steven T. Dahlberg and 
International Centre for Creativity and Imagination. All rights reserved.