COPING WITH MIDDLE AGE AND AGING
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 of the time we have left.
Erik Erikson, a noted analyst, discusses how at this point, like at all stages, we have choices. 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. One of my clients who had been divorced at 75 found a new wife to love, who accepted him much more than his prior wife of many years. Another used this time to become closer to family and friends, to become a better grandmother than she had been a mother.
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 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.
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 newer technology.” 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 adult classes for newer technologies or one can even hire a high school student to give lessons. If because of health or finances you cannot visit distant relatives and friends as often, you can email them or use skype very inexpensively. You 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 can explore our potential. 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 and meet 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 not doing so badly! Being the parents of small children and being the parents of teenagers are amazingly difficult experiences. Remove much of the stereotyping and getting older is not so different.
In a second substage of old age, 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 and have greater problems with our joints, backs, etc. Some people focus on these pains; others accept this is a part of aging and focus on what they can do, not what they cannot do. I grew tremendously through observing a colleague who had one physical problem after another. 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. One can also improve with aging by exercising and controlling one’s diet. 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 that each of us, in our small way, has provided something 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. We have all given something worth remembering and being proud of.
More recently, research has actually shown improvements with increased age. Sullivan (2011) reports that while memory and perceptual speed decline with age, verbal and abstract reasoning skills improve in middle age. Although they take longer to learn flight simulators, older adults did a better job of avoiding collisions than younger adults. They also rewire their brains to use both hemispheres on tasks, where young adults usually just use one.
A great example of age being a benefit is the achievement of Chesley Burnett Sullenberger. With his steadiness, wisdom and experience, “Sully” performed a water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. He saved 155 lives. Not bad for a man a few years from retirement!
Not all of us can be Sullys, but with an improved appreciation of our ability and taking care of ourselves, we can do a lot better than we think.
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
Phillips, Melissa Lee, “The Mind at Midlife,” The American Psychological Association Monitor, April 2011, pg. 38.
Dr. Miller is a Clinical Psychologist in practice in West Los Angeles and Torrance. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Contact Dr. Miller at 310-822-8898 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2018 by Malcolm Miller, Ph.D