With all the articles, Tweets and discussions about traversing the challenges of late-life I hear nothing about what one’s purpose is in late-life. Here are some thoughts about that based on the theories of Erik and Joan Erikson. Erik & Joan Erikson theorized that our lives traverse eight stages in total until we reach the final stage. However, during their lifetimes the Erikson’s witnessed an increase in life expectancy so they added another stage, the 9th stage. Erik Erikson modeled that each stage was a “psychosocial crisis”, in effect an inner conflict that needed to be resolved so we could have a healthy personality and live without conflict. To give you an idea of the stages, to name just a few, the 1st is “Basic Trust vs. Mistrust” where in infancy we develop the basic trust needed in each of us that evolves into Hope. The 3rd stage of development is our resolving the conflict of “Initiative vs. Guilt”, or Purpose. In this stage if parents stifle initiative the child develops a sense of inadequacy. The 5th stage, “Identity vs. Identity Confusion” or Fidelity, is where the adolescent can get lost and spend a lot of time looking for “self”, asking who am I in this world and what is my purpose? Many young adults do not successfully navigate through this stage and get stuck in the next stage without a firm foundation and tools to deal with the next stage, Intimacy vs. Isolation or Love. As we navigate through the stages, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not as we had hoped, we reach the 8th stage, “Integrity vs. Despair” or Wisdom.
The 8th stage is where the older adult reflects upon their life and either becomes satisfied or develops a sense that it was not a life worth living, hence Despair. Erikson is quoted as saying: “Despair expresses the feeling that time is now short, too short for the attempt to start another life and to try out alternate roads…” He also states that we do have one firm foothold in this stage to fall back on and that is “Basic trust”, and “life without it is simply unthinkable.” He states that Wisdom is the healthy product of the 8th stage where we can develop “an informed and detached concern with life in the face of death itself”. We must also note that those in their later years, long past their “Generative years”, still need a purpose and involvement in society. How can they still be useful and give back? That is the question many older adults have and probably why so many volunteer to form a labor force of unpaid caregivers and doers for others in need, truly purposeful living. However, there is another stage, the 9th.
Erikson also points out that “I am persuaded that if elders can come to terms with the dystonic elements in their life experiences in the 9th stage, they may successfully make headway on the path leading to gerotranscendence.” What is gerotranscendence? Principles regarding gerotranscendence from the Erikson’s book “The Life Cycle Completed” are: Letting go of the material things; gaining the wisdom of humility; defining ourselves by what we give back; to rise above, outdo, go beyond, independent of the universe and time; to leave behind those things we can not carry any longer as they are too heavy a burden; gaining new spiritual gifts. It’s as if the the older adult in the 9th stage transcends to be a playful child once again, not caring about the material things nor the false pretense of power and stature. Sounds like a nice place to be!
So what’s my point in bringing all this up? My perspective is that the last stage gives us the opportunity to find peace with ourselves and transcend into a different person who is at peace with the world. A loving, caring human being truly of value to the world. That would be by my definition of “successful aging”.