by Joy Navan, M.A., Ph.D.
Mysteries of Giftedness: A Lifespan Perspective
Perhaps it is a sense of the mystery of life, the mystery of the universe that surrounds us, and the mystery that is within us. It is within these vast unknowns that we try to establish our identities. We strive to carve out a place that is known, a place that we can manage, a place that is safe, a place that allows us to grow our unique Selves."
It is advantageous to define the term elders with regard to the thoughts and perceptions offered in this blog post. I recall words written by former President Jimmy Carter, who published the book, The Virtues of Aging, at the age of seventy-four. He wrote,
So then, when are we old? The correct answer is that each of us is old when we “think” we are -- when we accept an attitude of dormancy, dependence on others, a substantial limitation on our physical and mental activities, and restriction on the number of people with whom we interact." 2
While I agree that the term old may provoke thoughts of dependency, limitations, the loss of some mental acuity, and a narrowing of our participation in the social stream, the term elder, used in conjunction with gifted, has a much different connotation. Elders throughout most of human history and continuing in some current societies, are the wise ones, the spirit guides, and the teachers of the young; those whose existence sustains the present and guarantees the future of a people.
To paraphrase the words of Jimmy Carter, it is incumbent upon our gifted elders to reject the forces that pressure them into dormancy. If they must depend on others at times, they can still strive to preserve their voice through surrender to the feelings of helplessness or powerlessness. When others talk about, rather than to older people in their presence, it is imperative that they interject their voice, diplomatically reminding others that they are cognizant of issues, that they have the ability to participate in decision making, and that they deserve to be addressed directly and respected.
In 1991, the Columbus Group defined giftedness as follows:
Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened
intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different
from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of
the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching
and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.3
Therefore, gifted elders defined are those older, highly intelligent individuals who demonstrate heightened sensitivities and are capable of continued creative productivity.
As a final point, I propose that it is not only in parenting, teaching, and counseling that our understanding of the construct of giftedness is needed. Rather, as we observed throughout our exploration of giftedness in elderhood, the vulnerabilities of gifted individuals continue to threaten our wellbeing throughout the lifetime and require the support and intervention of sensitive and compassionate companions.
Annemarie Roeper, my friend and mentor, sat with me in her living room one evening. Her windows overlooked San Francisco Bay. She pointed to the distance, where we could see above the hubbub of cars and trains below. We gazed on the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and above these, a dark blue night sky. There was where the mystery lies for her–the beyond.
Annemarie often expressed her belief that gifted children of the new millennium are much more in touch with the mystery than previous generations. I concur that many gifted individuals with whom I interacted over the years possess a sense of the mystery–of that which is beyond our conscious awareness. Their intuitive hypersensitivity to phenomena is a trait that allows them to make connections in ways that less perceptive individuals do not achieve. We will explore this strength further, but first we need to appreciate some of the more common characteristics of gifted elders.
Characteristics of Gifted Elders
One of the first traits we notice about a young gifted child is the voracious appetite for learning that the child displays. Often, parents and caregivers observe this rage to know when children become engrossed in learning everything possible about one particular interest or issue (e.g., dinosaurs, the solar system). Gifted adults and elders also possess the love of learning and immerse themselves in preferred subjects. In addition to intellectual characteristics of gifted children, we observe distinct social and emotional facets of their personalities. We see these facets as in our gifted elders. Below are traits of giftedness drawn from a variety of sources and my own experience.
Note: Gifted individuals may possess some or all of these characteristics.
Perhaps one of the most eloquent descriptions of the Self of the gifted adult was penned by P. Susan Jackson.
"Their extraordinary intellect, oceanic emotions, communicative capacities, social appetites, and
reservoir of uncommon talent pulse with the need for right expression, right experience and right
contexts, to be able to live authentically, and with verve." 4
Jackson continued that despite being so richly endowed, many gifted adults lack the self-awareness and explicit knowledge of Self necessary to actualize their potential and reach full development of their creative capacities. My work with gifted elders reveals similar findings with many not becoming aware of their giftedness until late adulthood or even elderhood.
For many elders, along with the characteristics and development of giftedness described thus far, the construct of giftedness may bring moments of transcendence – moments in which we may glimpse or perhaps touch that which lies beyond ordinary awareness when we come to see ourselves as integral parts of the mystery – of the interconnectedness of the universe. In such moments there is a sense of timelessness and an ethereal feeling of entering or being invited into to another reality. We may feel awe or trepidation as we confront the other worldly quality of the moment, especially the first time we encounter it. Afterward, often we feel as if we have received a gift to be honored and treasured.
Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life … and the world.
Emotional Giftedness as the Heart of Giftedness
Precisely because of emotional giftedness it is vital that we understand the Self of the individual. It is essential that we hear and acknowledge a gifted person’s emotions. For gifted elders, emotions are just as important and profound as one’s intellect. We cannot separate cognition from the emotional and we must honor the integration of both as vital facets of the Self. Nevertheless, we know from research that the strong emotional components of gifted children and gifted adults often lead educators and mental health providers who do not understand giftedness to misdiagnose them.
Aging gifted individuals are at risk as well of being misdiagnosed with a disorder due to their intensity and heightened emotions. The avid reader who prefers solitude in order to engage in her favorite pastime is labelled antisocial. The elder who requests access to technology because he regularly corresponds with others throughout the world is told to be content with jigsaw puzzles. The introverted aging gifted person is often thrust into a residential living environment where residents are expected to socialize and to participate in group crafts and other activities. To paraphrase an aging friend when she told me that her family was urging her to move into such a facility, “I have authored several books, I continue to be professionally productive. What will I do in such a place? Make potholders?”
Often even those aging gifted with dementia have an awareness of the mis-fit between who they are and where they are placed. A close friend who I have always thought of as highly articulate with a keen sense of humor is currently an Alzheimer’s resident in a horrendous nursing home. When I visit her, she brightens and smiles, filling my heart with her quips. However, behind the smile, in the depth of her eyes, is the awareness of her dismal reality.
Hello Old Friend, You’re Back Again
Our aging elders may never have recognized that many qualities they possess would be identified by the gifted community as characteristics of giftedness. Their keen intellectual ability, their hunger for learning, their heightened sensitivities, their intuitive problem solving, are but a few examples. They may have spent their lives believing that they were flawed because they were so different from the norm. They may be in residential long-term care facilities that offer little or no stimulation or opportunities for enrichment. Consequently, their differences become the more misunderstood and often mislabeled.
Family members may treat the gifted elders as children, discounting their ability to think for themselves and participate in decisions regarding residential care, end-of-life decisions, and matters as simple as deciding what foods are healthy for them. Accordingly, the gifted individual feels disenfranchised in terms of her own abilities to self-regulate and is marginalized from family, friends, and society in general.
I was recently chatting with a friend of mine who is also a former academic colleague. We were talking of the many new projects each of us recently began in our seventies. He is a runner and used a very appropriate metaphor, which might resonate with gifted individuals concerning their continued creative productivity and their feelings regarding a life as yet unfinished. He shared that he felt as if he were just approaching the starting line of life.
My colleague’s words resonated strongly with me not only in terms of my personal need to be continually engaged and self-renewing. They also reverberate in terms of the mystery, of intuitive thinking, and of emotional giftedness. In so many ways, along with gifted elderhood comes the realization that the phenomena of giftedness are never left behind. Rather, they constantly re-present themselves as old friends, back again.
1. Annemarie Roeper, The “I” of the Beholder: A Guided Journey to the Essence of a Child (Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2007).
2. Jimmy Carter, The Virtues of Aging (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1998), 11.
3. Columbus Group, 1991, July. Unpublished transcript of the meeting of the Columbus Group. Columbus, OH.
4 P. Susan Jackson. Gifted Adults, standing, like curious children, before the great Mystery into which we were born…paraphrased from Einstein. Accessed May 31, 2017. www.linkedin.com/pulse/gifted-adults-standing-like-curious-children-before-great-jackson. February 4, 2017
5. Sarah Ban Breathnach, The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude (New York: Warner Books, 1996), 2.