One of the possibly least-appreciated attributes of old age is perseveration—the continual revisiting of familiar tropes, stories, worries, ideas or hopes. Like dementia—with which it’s associated—perseveration is a neurological condition that can’t be controlled. In a clinical setting, it’s associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. People who perseverate can’t seem to shake thoughts that occur over and over again. These dear souls keep repeating themselves and make the rest of us hope that they move on to other topics or feelings.
Originally, the term dealt with the duration or quality of persisting. In that more benign usage, perseveration included a little taste of stubbornness, with a dash or two of steadfastness, earnestness, tenacity and gravitas also thrown in. Those who perseverated were persistent—that’s the ultimate root word—in their thoughts and actions, in spite of discouragement or opposition.
I’m not sure when and how perseverance becomes considered as non-clinical perseveration—the one a positive, chosen character trait and the other a beginning sign of irrepressible cognitive impairment. Perhaps the difference hinges on whether someone keeps persisting—repetitively so—past the point where others can accommodate that person’s actions, words, thoughts, stories or questions. Perhaps the eye of the beholder becomes the ultimate determining factor?
Somewhere along a perseverance-perseveration continuum, older adult persistence might be considered as a milder form of perseveration, still bothersome even though not clinically so. It’s even possible that that designation might be unfairly assigned to an elder because her or his repeated opinions are bothersome or uncomfortable to others.
I understand and accept that perseverance can be a problem in relationships. I’ve listened to older folks whose strong opinions circled around the same five or six narratives. I’ve agonized alongside beloved elders as their gathering dementia masked a clarity of thought that remained intact, vital and useful. I’ve watched my earnest former colleagues hold fiercely to their well-worn insistence on spiritually connected matters such as the health of congregations, the primacy of various doctrines or the usefulness of beloved platitudes.
It’s not just cognitively-diminished folks who engage in repetitive story-telling, questions or concerns. I, too, regularly repeat, reexamine and revisit the same matters. As a sometimes-stubborn, earnest and serious older gentleman, I think to myself, “Wait a minute! It’s taken me most of my life to come to these conclusions, these beliefs. I’m not going to let go of my long-held passions or principles just because someone thinks critically about my hopes or yearnings.” And you’re right: By those thoughts I may show that I’m a willing—and perhaps eager—perseverer, or maybe even a borderline perseverator.
Why keep persisting? I still believe that that some of my earlier and current perceptions about social media, simple living, global warming, old age, the purpose of the church, grace or friendship will eventually persuade others. That folks will catch up or see the light. That my “Eureka!” moments might spark theirs.
I don’t know where you land on the perseverance/perseveration continuum, but I want to encourage you to hold onto what you have been stubbornly persistent about. Your wisdom and experience may still be useful for those around you—the people who depend on your thoughts but haven’t told you!
If you continue to embrace dearly what you know to be true, righteous, lovely or useful, you will preserve your perseverance.
I’ll try to do the same!