COPING WITH MIDDLE AGE AND AGING
By Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.
At some point as we get older, our perspective of life changes. Rather than thinking of our life from birth to our present age, we begin thinking in terms of the time we have left.
Erik Erikson, a noted analyst who created a developmental framework for all stages of life, discusses how at this point, like at all stages, we have choices we can make. We can despair that time is running out, or we can view this as a wake-up call to focus on areas of importance to us and even develop new interests. Those in the first category will say “This is who and what I am” or “It is too late now.” Others look for the opportunities. I have one client who had to retire and has learned that he has an interest in listening to opera he had been unaware of before. Another client who had been divorced at 75 found a new husband to love who accepted her much more than her prior husband of many years. A third used this time to become closer to family and friends, to become a better grandfather than he had been a father.
Robert G. Peck, Ph.D., a psychologist, subdivided Erikson’s final stage into middle age and old age. In middle age, he discusses “valuing wisdom vs. valuing physical powers.” Clearly as we get older our physical strength declines, aches and pains increase, and youthful looks decrease. The less we are able to accept these changes and the more we focus on them, the more likely we are to get depressed. On the other hand we have a wealth of experience younger people do not have and can use our accrued wisdom to guide us. It was more likely the older individuals who questioned the "dot-coms," internet startup companies that were growing very rapidly with high stock valuations and no profits. The young were seeing this as a new age and bought into anything with internet connections. It was the older people, who had seen fads come and go, who limited the amount of money they invested in these new wonder companies. They were viewed as foolish, old timers, but at the end of the day they were the people who still had a lot of investments intact!
Another substage during middle age is “mental flexibility vs. mental rigidity.” Some people will say “I’m too old to change” or “I could never learn to use a computer.” Again there is the choice. Changing one’s patterns is not easy, but we are living longer and longer and there is typically plenty of time still available to us. An advantage of being older is that there are fewer pressures and more time to progress at our own pace. I gave a few examples of clients who had the courage to make major changes in life. There are classes for beginners in computers or one can even hire a high school student to give lessons. That you got this far into the internet to find this article is a very good sign! Maybe relatives or friends of yours could benefit more than you! If because of health or finances they cannot visit distant relatives and friends as often, they can email them or carry on instant message communications very inexpensively. They can even visit famous museums on the internet.
In old age, Peck discusses "ego differentiation vs. work-role preoccupation." We can focus on what we used to identify ourselves by or we explore our potential. We can bemoan the passing of our work career and role as parent or we can see this as an opportunity to develop new appreciation and redefine ourselves. Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn learned they had artistic talent and saw painting as a whole new way of expressing themselves. Grandma Moses became a famous painter at the age of 90! Others do volunteer work with a group of individuals very different than those they spent their earlier lives with. Look at the changes you have already adapted to--your work and your family have gone through many transitions and you have come out quite well! Being the parents of small children and being the parents of teenagers is an amazingly different experience. Remove much of the stereotyping and getting older is not so different.
A second substage Peck explores is "body transcendence vs. body preoccupation." This is a very difficult area to adjust to. As we get older we have less resistance to illness, recover more slowly, and have greater problems with our joints, backs, etc. Some people focus on these pains and use them as a constant reminder of getting older and more infirm; others accept this is a part of aging and focus on what they can do, not what they cannot do, and focus on the people they like to be with. I grew tremendously as a person through observing a colleague who had one physical problem after another and would need people to substitute for her in her volunteer training role. When I asked her how she was able to keep going, she said she finds meaning in enjoying the good days and accepting that these good days are ones to treasure as her illnesses increase. Innumerable cancer patients say the same thing. My back problems don't seem so meaningful when I observe such people. Again we have choices and opportunities.
Peck's last substage in aging is "ego transcendence vs. ego preoccupation." In non-psychological terms this means we indeed are going to die. We can focus on either this ultimate loss of our being or recognize what each of us, in our small way, has provided to the world. We can appreciate what a precious opportunity we have had to experience the miracle of life. It can be the lessons we gave our children, that they will give to their children and then to their children. It can be the assembly line worker who took pride in his or her work so that people purchasing cars never had problems with that part--thanks to the unknown worker. We have all given something worth remembering and being proud of. At least as important, the fact of our simply being here is an amazing fact--from the timing of conception, that this particular sperm reaching that particular egg, and the challenges of survival in infancy.
When we approach events such as these and other significant life transitions, we can realize that our lives have been full of marvelous experiences, made even more meaningful by our struggles and losses!
Erikson, Erik H., Childhood and Society, W.W. Norton & Company, Reissue edition 1993.
Peck, Robert C., "Psychological Development in the Second Half" in Bernice L. Neugarten (Editor) Middle Age and Aging a Reader in Social Psychology, University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp.88-92.
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