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!
Dr. Peter Borten