Mental Health Matters: Challenges of aging
May 21, 2017
This column is for a select audience of adults over 65 years of age. So, for those who have yet to achieve this lofty perch, I say, "Beware, read at your own peril."
Sixty years ago, a well-regarded and widely read and cited Harvard and Yale psychologist, Erik Erikson, wrote about psychosocial development and the challenges of aging. Part of his research, building on the seminal contributions of C.G. Jung and Sigmund Freud, emphasized the life stage hurdles faced by people who have already worn through much more than half the tread life on their longevity tires.
Jung and Freud were the inventors of depth psychology, a way of understanding human behavior, which emphasized the unconscious, i.e., processes which operate outside conscious awareness, and govern our thoughts and behavior.
Building on this earlier work, Erik Erikson described eight stages of human development, the last of which he labeled "Late Adulthood."
In late adulthood, said Erikson, older adults reflect back on their lives, evaluating their successes and failures.
So, what could go wrong? After all, assuming you moved to Lake Tahoe, having amassed sufficient financial resources to carry you the distance, (Actually, an assumption only applicable to maybe 10 percent of the population. But that's another column.) You're living in paradise, spectacular scenery, clean air, low crime, and bountiful service organizations.
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Well, according to Erikson, a lot. Older people tend to look back on their lives, rather than toward the future. Thoughts and conversations are more likely to focus on the yesterdays, rather than the tomorrows. So if you're one of those people who feel your life hasn't been all that productive, that you never reached your goals, then you will be dissatisfied. You risk falling into depression and hopelessness. The future becomes grim, empty, uninteresting. Death may seem like a release. And it is true that both depression and suicide tend to increase with aging.
But what if, I'm sure, you feel that life is good, you've met your life goals, and you feel fulfilled. Then, developmental psychologists say you will face aging and death proudly, with equanimity, at peace with yourself, and what matters to you.
Not so fast. People are living much longer. A baby born today is expected to live for 100 years. The infirmities and disabilities of old age are delayed. There are more people than ever who feel at 75 or 85 that they can be useful, productive, and engaged citizens. Retirement, which may have averaged 10 years in past decades, can now extend 20 or 30 years.
But social institutions haven't yet adapted to this new reality. Ageism, prejudice against older citizens, is alive and well.
How then, does 30 years of post-retirement looking back on life feel? Boring, I would venture. You can only watch so much television, engage your hobbies with passion, productively volunteer, play so many rounds of golf, and reminisce about the good old days for so long before you commence ossification.
The poet, Dylan Thomas, writing about advancing age and death had other ideas. The Christian and psychological constructs of acceptance, acquiescence, and a peaceful decline didn't sit well with him. Rather, advised Thomas in a peerless poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Personally, my vote is not in favor of old-age psychologists, retirement community specialists, the advocates of full-time older adult leisure and disengagement from the world, the builders of retirement villages where thousands of adults over 65 speak only to each other, play only with each other, and are caged or corralled away from mainstream American life.
Rather, with Dylan Thomas, I advocate, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Engage, enrage, advocate, advance, and don't let them move you to the back of the bus. All that tread ware means you "know a thing or two," and you won't let today's fashion followers silence your voice.
I can just hear the therapist whispering in my ear: "Whyman, you've done well. A long marriage, two children, financial success, even a columnist for your local papers. Relax, kick back, take it easy, reflect on your accomplishments and triumphs, have a blast, party-down, above all, enjoy."
To which I say, "Thanks for your time. I plan to party and to engage, to contribute what I can, to rage at the dying light."
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.