Developmental theorist Eric Erickson found that psychological growth and development can occur throughout the life span. He identified eight life stages, each with a specific psychosocial problem that, if successfully resolved, brings about growth and the potential to master the next stage. The eighth and final life stage he called “maturity.” At this juncture, a person comes to realize that his or her life cannot be relived. Successful negotiation brings about ego integrity—a sense of peace with life as it was lived. If integrity does not develop, the person experiences despair, and regret about one’s life dominates. There is fear that death will come before a meaningful life can be experienced. Alternatively, a sense of integrity fosters wisdom. Erickson viewed the wise elder as contributing to society and future generations through interactions with younger people.
Compared to studies of intelligence, little research has been conducted on wisdom. Difficulty in defining and measuring this construct is likely the reason. In many situations, wisdom may be as valuable as intelligence, particularly in a rapidly changing technological world that requires personal flexibility.
Knowledge is an aspect of wisdom and includes the ability to know the limits of one’s knowledge. Wisdom also involves knowing what problems need solving and what problems can be let go. It includes the desire to evaluate things in depth. Those who possess wisdom have a tolerance for ambiguity and for things that inevitably get in the way. Further, those who are wise are motivated to understand and appreciate the impact of the context that surrounds a situation.
Importance of relationships
Social contact is an essential human element that has direct effects on health and emotional well-being. Relationships also act as potential buffers against stress. Numerous studies have shown that stress negatively affects one’s immune system. This is of particular importance for the elderly because immune functioning tends to diminish with age. New evidence is emerging that strong social relationships also promote recovery from certain illnesses. A recent study of 180 elderly men showed that those who experienced emotional support and companionship were at lower risk for developing heart disease. Another investigation found subjects who had strong relationships to be at lower risk of dying after a myocardial infarction than those who lacked supportive relations. Death rates are higher among people who are socially isolated. The sheer number of relationships is not the important factor, but the quality. For example, the presence of a family member does not automatically imply a meaningful relationship. Extensive research on gender differences suggests that the nature of relationships differs for men and women. Women tend to have more intimate connections. They benefit from having more positive feelings toward relationships. However, women also tend to suffer more from relationships because investment in others’ concerns can lead to increased conflict and stress. For this reason, relationships for men sometimes can provide greater protection from stress.
Both fulfilling informal and formal human connections can be healthful. Formal supports may include a member of the clergy, housekeeper, visiting nurse or psychotherapist. Informal relations are family members and casual contacts, perhaps the grocery store clerk. For some elderly, close neighbors are a crucial source of informal support. Studies indicate that pets are a source of relational support. Elderly pet owners have been shown to be less depressed, better able to tolerate social isolation and be more active than those without pets.
Relationship loss is common in late adulthood. Parents are deceased, and siblings and contemporaries begin to die. The opportunity for expression of sadness is critical for emotional healing; however, depression is not a normal state for the elderly. Consider Jane, who at 92 lives in a retirement home. She has no living siblings, has one remaining son of three children and has outlived two husbands. Notwithstanding these losses, she has a handful of meaningful friendships, is involved in her church and is well-liked by the staff members.
Researchers who followed subjects from adolescence to old age in a large-scale qualitative study of adult development discovered valuable information about relationships and aging. Positive relationships at any age of the person’s life were found to correlate to satisfaction in old age. A satisfying marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80. Contentment in later life was the outcome for subjects who had the ability to express gratitude and forgiveness in relationships. Overall, researchers determined that loving relationships promote personal growth and emotional healing.
Successful aging also involves learning to play and be creative after retirement. This ability to adapt to situational and physical changes helps explain why some people age more successfully than others.
Cohort effects need to be taken into account in clinical situations as well as research with the elderly. (Cohort refers to membership in a group as defined by a person’s birth year.) Much of the difference between young and older groups is due to cohort effects. Cohort groups are socialized into certain beliefs, attitudes and abilities based on the time in history in which they live. These factors remain stable as the cohort ages. Twenty years from now, a cohort of elderly Americans will look different than the current group because of different historical experiences. For instance, older people 20 years from now will have more formal education than today’s cohort of elderly. The way health care providers interact with and conduct patient teaching will need to be modified for each new cohort.