The Treasure of Elderhood

The other day, my 81-year-old neighbor told me that he was taking a shower when, over the sound of the rushing water, he suddenly heard a combination of yelping and snarling noises. He immediately knew what it was: coyotes attacking his little dog. He ran outside, scared the coyotes away, and started tending to his dog’s wounds. Then his wife came outside. “She tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Honey, you’re standing naked in the front yard.’ Oops! So I was!”

A few months ago we moved to a rural area. It’s the farthest I’ve ever lived from other people. While I looked forward to having more land to do things like raise chickens and grow our own food, I was also concerned that I would feel isolated and lonely. Then I met this gentleman. A few days after we moved in, he introduced himself with an armload of tomatoes and zucchini from his garden. He noticed that we hadn’t mowed our lawn yet, so a few hours later he returned on his tractor and mowed it for us. He’s a master gardener and woodworker, and offered unlimited horticultural advice and the use of his tools.

Many times I’ve said to myself, “What an absolute treasure.” The same goes for many of my other neighbors, most of whom are at least a generation older than me. I’m reminded of my earliest studies in psychology, when I was attracted to the developmental theory of Erik Erikson.

Erikson theorized that humans move through eight stages of psychosocial development. At each stage, he said, we are presented with a challenge or “crisis” between two conflicting qualities. One of these qualities supports our growth and evolution while the other thwarts it. If we choose to adopt the former, we develop a virtue associated with that stage.

In the first stage (Oral-Sensory), roughly from birth to age two, all of our basic needs are met by our parents and other caregivers. We are utterly dependent on others, and we are faced with the crisis of Trust versus Mistrust, which Erikson characterized with the question, “Can I trust the world?” If our parents are consistent, kind, dependable, and loving, we are likely to develop trust in others and a fundamental trust in ourselves. This leads to the virtue of hope, which helps us navigate the upcoming stages. If not, we are likely to become mistrustful of the world – seeing it as undependable and unpredictable.

For the sake of space, I’m just going to give you the nutshell versions of the next handful – until we get to the elder years. The ages given for the following can vary somewhat.

• Stage 2. From ages 2 through 4, the crisis is between autonomy versus shame and doubt. The existential question is, “Is it okay to be me?” And the virtue presented is will.

• Stage 3. From ages 4 through 5, the crisis is between initiative versus guilt. The existential question is, “Is it okay for me to do, move, and act?” And the virtue presented is purpose.

• Stage 4. From age 5 through 12, the crisis is between industry versus inferiority. The existential question is, “Can I make it in the world of people and things?” And the virtue presented is competence.

• Stage 5. From ages 13 through 19, the crisis is between identity versus role confusion. The existential question is, “Who am I and what can I be?” And the virtue presented is fidelity.

• Stage 6. From age 20 through 39, the crisis is between intimacy versus isolation. The existential question is, “Can I love?” And the virtue presented is love.

Now we come to the age ranges of my amazing neighbors. From age 40 through 64, the crisis is between generativity versus stagnation. The existential question is, “Can I make my life count?” The virtue presented is care. Erikson felt that during middle adulthood, the main task is to contribute to society and help guide and support future generations. Embracing this mantle makes us generative whereas a self-centered life leads to stagnation.

From age 65 to death, we face the crisis of integrity versus despair. The existential question is, “Is it okay to have been me?” As we become less productive and perhaps feel less useful to society, it’s possible to slip into despair, especially if we look back at our life through a lens of negativity, regret, or criticism. Alternatively, if we’re able to look back at the goodness we’ve enjoyed and shared, the ways we have served and accomplished, we experience integrity and the virtue of wisdom emerges.

Several years ago, as I witnessed the decline of some older patients who became bitter and sad, I began to recognize one of the primary fears of the elderly: to have nothing that the rest of the world values – being useless, wrinkled, irrelevant, confused, and a burden on others. And I thought, “What a horrible way to end life.” I was looking for a place where such elders can have a good life and finally ended up looking at https://homecareassistance.com/annapolis/ where I was able to find a beautiful place for elders to stay.

But as I enjoy the company of my new neighbors, feeling anything but isolated, grateful to have healthy elders as friends, I know such a course isn’t inevitable. These folks have clearly chosen generativity and integrity. They share their wisdom and worth with the world. And I believe they would continue to do so even if they were disabled and unable to help out, because it’s a state of mind, really. It’s inspiring and encouraging to know that such choices are available to me as I age, and that such individuals are available to help us navigate the way.
What has your experience of elderhood been? Are you an elder? What are your struggles and triumphs? Share your wisdom with our community!

Be well,
Dr. Peter Borten

26 thoughts on “The Treasure of Elderhood

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful article. I am dealing with my mother in elderhood and this helped put in perspective those feelings she is having. Also, thank you for the refresher on Erickson as I had not remembered that theory from college from my undergraduate studies, yet I find it quite useful. As I come to elderhood myself (a few year off yet) I hope I can keep in mind of how much I have to share.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Sharon. Yes, in revisiting Erikson myself, I found value in his work, though I think there’s much more fluidity and “grey” than is apparent in the one- and two-word labels of these categories. I, too, hope you are able to prioritize sharing your wisdom.

  2. At the age of 64, I can relate (roughly) to the Erickson stages. You needed to present them briefly, so it wasn’t possible to discuss the “in-betweens” – the variations between virtue and … I don’t know … vice? We all fluctuate, vacillate, and peregrinate within the extremes, hoping to come out okay in the end. Thanks for a good article.

    1. You’re welcome, John. And yes, there’s a lot more to discuss. It’s not as black-and-white as what’s presented here.

  3. I am a 64 year old nurse with 43 years of nursing experience. I have a lot of pride in being a nurse, giving comfort to others. Now I want to do more to be of service and contribute to others. I want to be an advocate of wellness and positivity. I’m not sure how to do this. Still a work in progress…

    1. Good to hear, Mary. And as for how to do it, I think it’s worth starting by keeping it on your mind throughout the day. There will be lots of opportunities – even without dramatically changing your life – for you to enact this purpose.

  4. Wow

  5. Beautiful post. Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome, Darlene

  6. Love this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the topic of aging. When we live a good life, particularly one of service to others, we pave the way for a good death, meaning without unwarranted fear or regret. At least I hope so. 🙂

    1. I hope so, too!

  7. Thank you for this positive reminder that late age does not mean end of life.

    1. You’re welcome, Gail

  8. No matter how much I’d lived through before, I thought life began when I turned 30. Then when I turned 40, I realized it was the best time in my life to date. I’m now 46 and just starting to understand my purpose and “what I want to do when I ‘grow up'”. The desire to be more authentically me and share my gifts with the world is stronger every day. I do have hope that elders will still be considered of great value as I move through life. I had great inspirations in my grandparents but have also seen so many sitting in nursing homes, waiting for the end, practically forgotten by loved ones and society. Feeling of worth is so important. We all need to feel there’s something to live for and keep doing in the world and sense that at least someone benefits from our presence.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Cadence. While we can’t change end of life circumstances for many, hopefully we can embody these virtues – and encourage them in others – for as long as we’re capable.

      Incidentally, Erikson’s wife, Joan, added a ninth stage after Erik died, when she was in her 90s. It was essentially a process of coming to terms with the unvirtuous sides of all these stages.
      For instance, in revisiting stage 1 (trust/mistrust and hope), she wrote (from Wikipedia): “elders are forced to mistrust their own capabilities” because one’s “body inevitably weakens”. Yet, “while there is light, there is hope” for a “bright light and revelation.”

  9. Dear Peter, yes I AM an Elder. I will be 70 in November. I have to say that, with the exception of my son, my life has been good in hindsight! I had a rewarding 34 year teaching career, having taught French, Spanish and a bit of Latin to middle school people whom I loved. Many are still in touch with me. We sometimes meet for a wine, snacks, music. I know I could ask any one of them for help and he/she would be there! I cannot say that for my 34 year old son who has consistently treated /talked to me in a way no one should be treated. He again has cut all ties with me and although I should be accustomed to this, it’s still a blow from which I have to recover.
    Last year, I went to Africa for about 3 1/2 weeks, camping (on the ground!) with a group of people from a variety of countries whose ages were in 20s-30s. I formed some amazing friendships.
    In March -April I am returning to Africa for a full month of the same type of camping, different countries. I am going alone again, since not one of my friends would consider such a primitive trip!
    Anyway, being an Elder is good. I remember my parents telling me that with age comes peace. So true! Things that used to bother me, upset me, annoy me, anger me are really nothing in the big picture. Except Trump.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Nancy. I do hope you find a way to reconcile with your son, or at least forgive him.
      Be well,
      Peter

  10. According to your age phases, I’m an “Elder”! Ha! Since I still have children at home, I’m definitely contributing but hope to never grow bitter as I have a list several miles long to accomplish before death. A conundrum to me is my parents, my father is active with his music(with my brothers) and supporting the business my mother runs, but my mother is so focused on her business she has little time for family and even her nine grandchildren hardly see her. I worry that she is going the way of bitterness when all she has left is a business and no relationships left with her children and descendants.

    1. Yeah, I didn’t so much mean the young end of the 40-65 stage as being elderhood, but perhaps the latter portion… Otherwise, I’d be an elder, too. I hope your mother changes her priorities so she can enjoy her family and preserve her relationships – that’s the real value in life. Maybe you can find a clever way to awaken her to what she’s missing. 😉

  11. Hi Dr. Peter,

    What a great article! Although I passed on my college opportunity I feel you’re never too old to learn new things and ideas. Possibly even adapt them.

    I find this interesting in so many ways. I lived those stages. Maybe not in that time frame since I became a Mom at 18 but I can be a true testament that his theory is mostly true.

    Last night I had a moment. I realized that in a few years I will be 60. My parents are young so just saying, “I will be 60” just blows my mind.

    I’m not quite an elder but this is my struggle becoming one: My body is traumatized by my adventures growing up but my mind feels like a youngster still wanting to move, learn and love.

    The Rituals and Dragontree came to me at just the right time in my life as I consider myself in a growth spurt and it is truly so genuine and helpful in so many ways. Our Facebook group is also awesome as I feel I’ve gained so many acquaintances along my journey with similar goals.

    My husband laughs when I tell him “all the stars must have lined up just right because I truly feel this is my path” but I deeply feel it’s so more than ever.

    Thank you and your staff for helping me see that growth at 50+ is possible. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

    Keep writing. I’ll keep reading and hope to spread this for a more peaceful and loving world individually and collectively.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Kimberly. I’m glad to hear you feel such inspiration and zeal for life. I hope you can find a way to forgive your body and perhaps forgive yourself for the damage that was done, if there’s any self-blame there. There’s so much you can still do.
      Be well,
      Peter

  12. Thank you for a very thoughtful article. It is interesting to me that although the baby boomer generation is a very large population we are often ignored in today’s world of media- unless we are being shown in ads for the latest medications. I hope we will continue to see articles and photos that show the beauty and value of older people. Especially as a women, I see so many friends having procedures done to look younger and the photos that are shown of women don’t say hey, see this beautiful 50 year old, they say, hey, see this 50 year old who looks 35- that is what you need. We have all embraced the vision of showing ethnic variety in print media! Let’s work to get more beautiful older men and women in print!

    1. Thanks, Ann. Yes, most media is sponsored by corporations (which is why I like NPR) and their agenda is to sell products and services. And one of the most compelling products is YOUTH. So, whether it’s an adult diaper or a diet soda they’re trying to sell to Boomers, they’ll often try to imply that it will restore youth.
      Youth is ok, but there’s pretty good evidence that age brings greater peace and joy.

  13. Hi Cuz –

    Very nice and thoughtful piece. I couldn’t agree more with the ideas about the stages of life you’ve shared here. I’m smack in the middle of that “Generativity versus Stagnation” stage and find I do ponder the notion of “Can I make my life count?” I have found that during this middle adulthood phase (with one child not thriving in young adulthood and the other about to embark on amazing things and very driven and focused) I often focus on how Cathy’s and my efforts contribute to society and help guide and support future generations (at least our direct ones). It’s an awesome and daunting responsibility — when it goes well, it feels great; when it doesn’t result in what you hope for your children, it can be kind of crushing.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking discussion.

    All the best,
    – Matt B.

    1. Thanks, Matt!
      Well, for what it’s worth, I think that just being conscious of your purpose makes a difference. The more of your life you spend with that purpose in your awareness (even just partially), the clearer the choices become. And the broader that purpose, the easier it is to find ways to be aligned with it in a variety of settings and endeavors.
      It’s hard with kids, because you want them to be happy and to make good choices, but they have free will and sometimes they need to learn things the hard way. I wonder how it would feel to live by a stated purpose of something like, “My purpose is to love and support by son while allowing him to make his own choices,” if that would allow you to feel less consumed by the consequences of his painful choices. I’m sure it’s more complicated than I can imagine, but hopefully you can feel that you have done your best and have supported the emergence of that virtuous “core” in him.
      take care,
      Peter

  14. I really enjoyed this article. I’m in my early 50’s and still trying to figure myself out, and yet in the back of my mind I wonder how I’ll be as an elder. My thoughts while reading this were, I wish the younger generations could understand how much elders have to offer. Native Americans, Alaska Natives and eastern cultures seem to honor their elders (although this is also being disregarded is some of those cultures today), many,it seems, don’t realize until its to late what they had in front of them.

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