Psychosocial Development in Late Adulthood

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe theories related to late adulthood, including Erikson’s psychosocial stage of integrity vs. despair
  • Describe examples of productivity in late adulthood

Erikson: Integrity vs. Despair

As a person grows older and enters into the retirement years, the pace of life and productivity tend to slow down, granting a person time for reflection upon their life. They may ask the existential question, “It is okay to have been me?” If someone sees themselves as having lived a successful life, they may see it as one filled with productivity, or according to Erik Erikson, integrity.

Here integrity is said to consist of the ability to look back on one’s life with a feeling of satisfaction, peace and gratitude for all that has been given and received. Erikson (1959/1980) notes in this regard:

“The possessor of integrity is ready to defend the dignity of his own lifestyle against all physical and economic treats. For he knows that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle within but one segment of history; and that for him all human integrity stands and falls with the one style of integrity of which he partakes.” (Erikson, 1959/1980, p. 104)

Thus, persons derive a sense of meaning (i.e., integrity) through careful review of how their lives have been lived (Krause, 2012). Ideally, however, integrity does not stop here, but rather continues to evolve into the virtue of wisdom. According to Erikson, this is the goal during this stage of life.

If a person sees their life as unproductive, or feel that they did not accomplish their life goals, they may become dissatisfied with life and develop what Erikson calls despair, often leading to depression and hopelessness. This stage can occur out of the sequence when an individual feels they are near the end of their life (such as when receiving a terminal disease diagnosis).

Erik Erikson.

Figure 1. Erikson emphasized the importance of integrity, and feeling a sense of accomplishment as an older person looks back on their life.

Erikson’s Ninth Stage

Erikson collaborated with his wife, Joan, through much of his work on psychosocial development. In the Erikson’s older years, they re-examined the eight stages and created additional thoughts about how development evolves during a person’s 80s and 90s. After Erik Erikson passed away in 1994, Joan published a chapter on the ninth stage of development, in which she proposed (from her own experiences and Erik’s notes) that older adults revisit the previous eight stages and deal with the previous conflicts in new ways, as they cope with the physical and social changes of growing old. In the first eight stages, all of the conflicts are presented in a syntonic-dystonic matter, meaning that the first term listed in the conflict is the positive, sought-after achievement and the second term is the less-desirable goal (ie. trust is more desirable than mistrust and integrity is more desirable than despair).[1] During the ninth stage, Erikson argues that the dystonic, or less desirable outcome, comes to take precedence again. For example, an older adult may become mistrustful (trust vs. mistrust), feel more guilt about not having the abilities to do what they once did (initiative vs. guilt), feel less competent compared with others (industry vs. inferiority) lose a sense of identity as they become dependent on others (identity vs. role confusion), become increasingly isolated (intimacy vs. isolation), feel that they have less to offer society (generativity vs. stagnation), or[2] The Erikson’s found that those who successfully come to terms with these changes and adjustments in later life make headway towards gerotrancendence, a term coined by gerontologist Lars Tornstam to represent a greater awareness of one’s own life and connection to the universe, increased ties to the past, and a positive, transcendent, perspective about life.

Activity Theory

Developed by Havighurst and Albrecht in 1953, activity theory addresses the issue of how persons can best adjust to the changing circumstances of old age–e.g., retirement, illness, loss of friends and loved ones through death, etc. In addressing this issue they recommend that older adults involve themselves in voluntary and leisure organizations, child care and other forms of social interaction. Activity theory thus strongly supports the avoidance of a sedentary lifestyle and considers it essential to health and happiness that the older person remains active physically and socially. In other words, the more active older adults are the more stable and positive their self-concept will be, which will then lead to greater life satisfaction and higher morale (Havighurst & Albrecht, 1953). Activity theory suggests that many people are barred from meaningful experiences as they age, but older adults who continue to want to remain active can work toward replacing opportunities lost with new ones.[3]

Disengagement Theory

Disengagement theory, developed by Cumming and Henry in the 1950s, in contrast to activity theory, emphasizes that older adults should not be discouraged from following their inclination towards solitude and greater inactivity. While not completely discounting the importance of exercise and social activity for the upkeep of physical health and personal well being, disengagement theory is opposed to artificially keeping the older person so busy with external activities that they have no time for contemplation and reflection (Cumming & Henry, 1961). In other words, disengagement theory posits that older adults in all societies undergo a process of adjustment which involves leaving former public and professional roles and narrowing their social horizon to the smaller circle of family and friends. This process enables the older person to die more peacefully, without the stress and distractions that come with a more socially involved life. The theory suggests that during late adulthood, the individual and society mutually withdraw. Older people become more isolated from others and less concerned or involved with life in general. This once popular theory is now criticized as being ageist and used in order to justify treating older adults as second class citizens.[4]

Continuity Theory

Continuity theory suggests as people age, they continue to view the self in much the same way as they did when they were younger. An older person’s approach to problems, goals, and situations is much the same as it was when they were younger. They are the same individuals, but simply in older bodies. Consequently, older adults continue to maintain their identity even as they give up previous roles. For example, a retired Coast Guard commander attends reunions with shipmates, stays interested in new technology for home use, is meticulous in the jobs he does for friends or at church, and displays mementos from his experiences on the ship. He is able to maintain a sense of self as a result. People do not give up who they are as they age. Hopefully, they are able to share these aspects of their identity with others throughout life. Focusing on what a person can do and pursuing those interests and activities is one way to optimize and maintain self-identity.

Generativity in Late Adulthood

People in late adulthood continue to be productive in many ways. These include work, education, volunteering, family life, and intimate relationships. Older adults also experience generativity (recall Erikson’s previous stage of generativity vs. stagnation) through voting, forming and helping social institutions like community centers, churches and  schools. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote “I am what survives me.”[5]

Productivity in Work

elderly man at work in a store.

Figure 2. Many choose to retire at age 65, but some enjoy a productive work life well beyond their 60s.

Some continue to be productive in work. Mandatory retirement is now illegal in the United States. However, many do choose retirement by age 65 and most leave work by choice. Those who do leave by choice adjust to retirement more easily. Chances are, they have prepared for a smoother transition by gradually giving more attention to an avocation or interest as they approach retirement. And they are more likely to be financially ready to retire. Those who must leave abruptly for health reasons or because of layoffs or downsizing have a more difficult time adjusting to their new circumstances. Men, especially, can find unexpected retirement difficult. Women may feel less of an identify loss after retirement because much of their identity may have come from family roles as well. But women tend to have poorer retirement funds accumulated from work and if they take their retirement funds in a lump sum (be that from their own or from a deceased husband’s funds), are more at risk of outliving those funds. Women need better financial retirement planning.

Sixteen percent of adults over 65 were in the labor force in 2008 (U. S. Census Bureau 2011).  Globally, 6.2 percent are in the labor force and this number is expected to reach 10.1 million by 2016.  Many adults 65 and older continue to work either full-time or part-time either for income or pleasure or both.  In 2003, 39 percent of full-time workers over 55 were women over the age of 70; 53 percent were men over 70. This increase in numbers of older adults is likely to mean that more will continue to part of the workforce in years to come. (He et al., article, U. S. Census, 2005).

Volunteering: Face-to-face and Virtually

About 40 percent of older adults are involved in some type of structured, face-to-face, volunteer work.  But many older adults, about 60 percent, engage in a sort of informal type of volunteerism helping out neighbors or friends rather than working in an organization (Berger, 2005). They may help a friend by taking them somewhere or shopping for them, etc. Some do participate in organized volunteer programs but interestingly enough, those who do tend to work part-time as well. Those who retire and do not work are less likely to feel that they have a contribution to make. (It’s as if when one gets used to staying at home, their confidence to go out into the world diminishes.) And those who have recently retired are more likely to volunteer than those over 75 years of age.

New opportunities exist for older adults to serve as virtual volunteers by dialoguing online with others from around their world and sharing their support, interests, and expertise. According to an article from AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), virtual volunteerism has increased from 3,000 in 1998 to over 40,000 participants in 2005. These volunteer opportunities range from helping teens with their writing to communicating with ‘neighbors’ in villages of developing countries. Virtual volunteering is available to those who cannot engage in face-to-face interactions and opens up a new world of possibilities and ways to connect, maintain identity, and be productive (Uscher, 2006).

Education

Twenty percent of people over 65 have a bachelors or higher degree. And over 7 million people over 65 take adult education courses (U. S. Census Bureau, 2011).  Lifelong learning through continuing education programs on college campuses or programs known as “Elderhostels” which allow older adults to travel abroad, live on campus and study provide enriching experiences. Academic courses as well as practical skills such as computer classes, foreign languages, budgeting, and holistic medicines are among the courses offered. Older adults who have higher levels of education are more likely to take continuing education. But offering more educational experiences to a diverse group of older adults, including those who are institutionalized in nursing homes, can enhance the quality of life.

Religious Activities

People tend to become more involved in prayer and religious activities as they age. This provides a social network as well as a belief system which can combat the fear of death. Religious activities provide a focus for volunteerism and other activities as well. For example, one elderly woman prides herself on knitting prayer shawls that are given to those who are sick. Another serves on the altar guild and is responsible for keeping robes and linens clean and ready for communion.

Political Activism

The elderly are very politically active. They have high rates of voting and engage in letter writing to congress on issues that not only affect them, but on a wide range of domestic and foreign concerns. In the past three presidential elections, over 70 percent of people 65 and older showed up at the polls to vote (U. S. Census Bureau).

Try It

Glossary

integrity:
Erikson refers to this as reflecting on one’s life and is experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment
disengagement theory:
suggests that during late adulthood, the individual and society mutually withdraw
activity theory:
suggests that people are barred form meaningful experiences as they age and that physical and social activities are important
continuity theory:
suggests that as people age, they continue to view the self in much the same way as they did when they were younger

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  1. Perry, T. E., Ruggiano, N., Shtompel, N., & Hassevoort, L. (2015). Applying Erikson's wisdom to self-management practices of older adults: findings from two field studies. Research on aging, 37(3), 253–274. doi:10.1177/0164027514527974
  2. Gusky, Judith (2012). Why aren’t they screaming? A counselor’s reflection on aging. Counseling Today. Retrieved from https://ct.counseling.org/2012/04/why-arent-they-screaming-a-counselors-reflection-on-aging/
  3. Håkan Nilsson, Pia H. Bülowac, Ali Kazemib (2015). Europe's Journal of Psychology, 2015, Vol. 11(3), doi:10.5964/ejop.v11i3.949. Retrieved from https://ejop.psychopen.eu/article/view/949/html.
  4. Håkan Nilsson, Pia H. Bülowac, Ali Kazemib (2015). Europe's Journal of Psychology, 2015, Vol. 11(3), doi:10.5964/ejop.v11i3.949. Retrieved from https://ejop.psychopen.eu/article/view/949/html.
  5. Havey, Elizabeth A. (2015). "What's Generativity and Why It's Good for You." Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/whats-generativity-and-why-its-good-for-you_b_7629174?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAISJrz_B9ylovtOxRuUNpAiqtA6GZvMM8nUxuyG0eL1AwbMX0F2fEIL6QyV_FFiZfAf4oNBhRfajbOpAJu1L8tGsPe1My9RCv7X-hFjvhxNcr11Z5VRkfmmim1nxpi2cA-cF4SYXbn9OyhdIzXtdHB-UwJqn73I0rFzpLKpv35gT.