What is the Primary Psychological Task of Late Adulthood? by Bob Ritzema

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By Bob Ritzema

Psychologists usually view human development as consisting of a series of tasks or issues, each of which must be dealt with in turn. Thus infancy is about learning to trust, adolescence about independence and identity, and early adulthood about intimacy. But what is the psychological task of older adulthood?

Students of developmental psychology know the textbook answer, first given by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson: to achieve ego integrity, or, failing that, to lapse into despair. According to this view, the older adult engages in a life review, looking back over the decades at choices made, accomplishments, and outcomes. If that review results in the person concluding that he or she made a significant contribution and that life was meaningful, that person will have a sense of ego integrity. In contrast, those who see their lives as patterns of wrong choices, missed opportunities, and failures will experience despair.

Most of us older adults do think back over what we’ve done or failed to do with our lives. In my work as a therapist, I have worked with a number of older adults who were either struggling with discerning the meaning of their lives or had ended their life review washed up on the shoals of despair. Those who were eventually able to resolve these issues experienced significant relief. So life review is important. That’s not all that’s going on in our psyches, though.

One limitation of viewing late life as being primarily about ego integrity vs. despair is the emphasis this puts on the ego: on our individual self-evaluations and self-justifications. Is the ego that important? Aren’t we much more than the measure we take of ourselves? Another issue pertaining to life reviews is that such reviews may be quite inaccurate. Might not someone who has though the years been manipulative, exploitative, and pernicious but has well-rehearsed excuses for such faults end up feeling pretty good about his or her life? Might not a genuinely kind and nurturing person who is unfortunately rather self-critical focus only on past mistakes and wind up in despair?

Thus, the process of life review may be less a true assessment of one’s accomplishments and more a manifestation of one’s defenses. Besides, in many cases life review doesn’t seem to be the final psychic act we perform. Many of us assess our lives around the time our career ends or our children leave home. We may then have more than thirty years still remaining to us. Will our psyches lie fallow for all that time?

An alternate conception of psychological development in late life holds that some older adults achieve gerotranscendence–a state characterized by decreased focus on the self and increased cosmic awareness. Still another view is that the main psychological issue of late life is to deal with the loss or relinquishment of many things that formerly give life meaning. Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser is a proponent of this view:

“[P]erhaps the greatest spiritual and psychological challenge for us once we reach mid-life is to mourn our deaths and losses. Unless we mourn properly our hurts, our losses, life’s unfairness, our shattered dreams, our radical inconsummation, and all the life that we once had but that has now passed us by, we will live either in an unhealthy fantasy or an ever-intensifying bitterness.” The Holy Longing, p. 162,3

Astutely, Rolheiser notes that we need to grieve not only what we have lost but what we wished for but never had–“our shattered dreams, our radical inconsummation.” Rolheiser points out that if we never acknowledge what is gone, we live in unreality, i.e. in a world of fantasy. If we recognize what is gone but avoid grieving it, we are likely to become bitter.

The claim that the main psychological task of old age is to deal with loss and relinquishment seems rather bleak. Yet dealing with loss does not mean constant sorrow. There are significant positives that result from honestly looking at what we have lost or are going to lose. I’ll discuss those positives in an upcoming post.

By Bob Ritzema

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