Eric Erickson: The Life Cycle
Ken Gilbert talks about Elderhood.
Erik Erikson – Developmental Psychoanalyst
Stage 8. Late adulthood (from 60 years)
Psychosocial Crisis: Ego Integrity vs. Despair
Ego Quality: Wisdom
Main Question: “What kind of life have I lived?”
As we move toward the end of our lives, if we can look back on good times with gladness, on hard times with self-respect, and on mistakes and regrets with forgiveness then we will find a new sense of integrity.
But as we reflect on our past, some of us may become bitter, regretful and despair at what we accomplished or failed to accomplish within our lifetime.
I’m contrasting these words about one’s intention in older age with my experience as a Hospice Volunteer Visitor.
I’m also, of course, listening to these words about intention in older age with my 66 year old ears thinking about them with my 66 year old brain.
As Forrest Carver points out, people are three times more likely to live past 90 than a generation ago, and I’m sure that is true.
My wife Ruth and I now care for her 94 year old dad, a man who is physically well but has major memory limitations. We go to church with a 100 year old guy who only recently stopped being able to be in church regularly. Our church community includes a dozen or so folks who live in a very nice assisted living center. They are all in their late 80’s and historically were the core of the church we joined 20 years ago. So we are in touch with 90 year olds on a regular basis.
Ruth and I currently are jointly responsible visitors for a 94 year old hospice client who has kidney failure but has elected to not get started with kidney dialysis. This decision means she will probably die in the next four or five months. She has lived in an assisted living apartment for the past 12 years. During that time she has lost most of her sight and a lot of her hearing, has developed significant arthritis and congestive heart failure. About the only thing that works well for her right now is her mind. She is really quite together and able, I suppose, to think about her life, her accomplishments and disappointments pretty clearly. But her options in terms of future plans are pretty sharply curtailed.
She is surrounded by folks who are much less together mentally than she is. She confides that the three other women who sit with her in the communal dining room say exactly the same thing at every meal. She has learned to nod and pretend to listen while she has thoughts of her own – and that works well since her hearing is so bad that she really can’t listen very well anyway. Maybe these women were able to review their histories and accomplishments and consider their future when they were in their 60’s and 70’s.
I experience that we need yet some other kind of way to talk about the lives of those in their 90’s. They are not planning the future. They are living in spite of. In spite of having lost a spouse (sometimes like our client having lost a spouse three decades ago) in spite of multiple medical problems, in spite of having been “retired” for more years than they actually worked during their whole career, in spite of no longer having a house or neighborhood that they identify as “my turf” , and in most cases in spite of having lost contact with their church community and mostly lost track of their biological family. They are carrying on in spite of these multiple losses. They get up and shower in the morning and make sure their hair is groomed. They do as best as they can with email given their limited vision and slow finger movement. They dress and often put on a little perfume for dinner. They maintain pleasant conversation and pleasant interactions. But they are not making great art. They are not organizing philosophical conceptions. There are many hundreds of such folks living in the “supported living” apartments of Champaign and Urbana and I suspect many other midwestern towns. They are not planning the future – although they are not cutting off the option of a future either. If we are going to “invent” new categories or names for states of life, those are the ones for whom we need to come up with a name and a way to think about what it means for our “humanness” that so many of us end up thus.
– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.