Spend some time in a nursing home and observe two very general types of elderly people: ones who are still happy and others who are still miserable. Both of their stories have a fair share of life tragedies, health problems, loss of loved ones, wars, disappointments, and successes. Yet one group walks away with a sense of having lived life well despite all of the tragedies and the other with regret despite any successes. How can this be?
Erik Erikson defines the last of his eight psychosocial development stage as Integrity vs. Despair. It begins around age sixty-five and ends at death. The outcome of the previous seven stages sets the standard for this last stage in life. A person who has progressed well in previous stages will most likely end well.
When a person ages, their ability to moderate thoughts, feelings and emotions diminishes so good habits that were formed earlier tend to remain such as eating right, exercise and proper rest. However, if a person’s life was filled with negative habits such as smoking, anxiety, and limited activity these habits tend to become more exaggerated with age. This is especially true with thought habits. When there is a pattern of positive thoughts, that continues; however anxious or obsessive thoughts tend to worsen.
The Psychology. The end of a life brings a natural time of reflection especially after retirement. A sense of “what I do doesn’t matter anymore” sets in as “who I am as a result of what I have done” becomes the stronger reality. Those who are able to reflect on their life and feel a sense of accomplishment end their life with integrity. As opposed to those who reflect on their life and feel a sense of failure end their life with despair.
Life with Integrity. Integrity is the ability to look back on your life and find satisfaction, fulfillment, acceptance of both successes and failures, and pride in a life well lived. The outcome of integrity is wisdom in having lived life well and with it comes a natural desire to share gained wisdom with younger adults and children. The elder adult who has gains integrity takes an interest in the lives of their family members, is active in their community or church, has a variety of hobbies they enjoy, is proactive in physically caring for themselves. They also don’t get angry over new limitations due to age, health, and decreased cognitive functions. Many cultures outside of the U.S.A. value the elderly and esteem them for such gained wisdom and insight in many areas of their life.
Life with Despair. Despair occurs when you look back on life and find regret, disappointment, wastefulness, and bitterness over missed opportunities. The outcome of despair can be depression, isolation, disinterest in activities they once enjoyed, avoidance of family, and untreated medical conditions. The elder adult who despairs tends to focus on the negative outcome of current problems, blames others for their condition and reworks history in their favor. These individuals often engage in addictive behavior to hide from their despair by abusing prescription medication, alcohol or fantasy living in gambling, excessive TV watching, and overspending money.
The Cure. It is very difficult to take a life ending with despair and transform it to integrity. Sadly, many fall into despair as they feel a sense that it is too late for them to do anything or to contribute anything in a meaningful way to others. It is really not for another person to judge whether or not a life is useful or whether or not it can be used in the future. Every life has value and is able to contribute even in a nursing home.
Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development span the entire life of a person highlighting key struggles that each age group meets as they grow older. At the end of a life, it is clear which path a person has chosen as a lifetime of successfully confronting each stage produces good fruit which age well. However, if a person produces bad fruit, it is likely to rot.