I have always been interested in the developmental stages of life, especially those of children. Now, I’m seeing that aging adults also have different periods of change and growth we go through in our later years.
There are many models out there for identifying where we are in life, and I have found them extremely helpful in staying one step ahead of what to expect from children in my professional work in education. Perhaps we can apply this to our aging years as well. Information is power!
Erik Erikson’s 8th Stage of Life, the years 65 to death, is called Wisdom: Ego Integrity vs. Despair. His stages always include opposing forces, conflicts to overcome. It is during these years that we contemplate our accomplishments and are able to develop integrity if we have lived a happy and productive life. If we feel dissatisfied or disappointed in our lives, then we feel despair.
Erik died at age 92 while he and his wife were developing a 9th stage of psychological development. Joan completed the work, identifying the late 80s and early 90s as Despair vs. Gerotranscendence. During this time, the old person is confronted with all the other stages converging at the same time. The negative now takes the dominant role over the positive. Despair takes precedence with the loss of physical abilities, autonomy being whittled away, increasing dependence and loss of identity.
If elders can get past the despair, we can move into Gerotranscendence, the peacefulness necessary to move on to the next stage of existence, or spiritual realm.
This is all fascinating, but I feel it’s a bit morbid. There are other theorists who give a deeper, more soulful spin on these phases.
Bill Plotkin, Durango’s own psychotherapist, founder of Animas Valley Institute and author of Nature and Human Soul, divides the elder years into two stages: the Master and the Sage. He describes the Master as having more to do than there is time to do it, letting go of striving and becoming less controlling, being more intuitive, noticing more synchronicities happening and having a more reflective lifestyle.
There is more gratitude and a move to community and worldly caring. We surrender our sense of individual accomplishment and move to less identity and ego. He recommends creating “councils of elders” for sharing wisdom and concerns and for mentoring others.
Bill’s later stage, the Sage, is described as graceful, wise, serene, wild and generous, if we have passed through the previous stages successfully. He calls it a “spunky exuberance in unmediated, ecstatic communion with the great mysteries of life – the birds, the fishes, the trees, etc.” It’s as if we rise to a higher consciousness. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is further interested in this work.
Then there is Ram Dass. In his book, Still Here, he continually compares the Soul to the Ego. The ego includes all the things we think of as “ourselves,” our bodies, our personalities, fame, reputations, possessions, emotions – who we “think” we are. The ego is what causes suffering.
The Soul transcends everything and is here to learn. As we age, we can learn to observe our minds and bodies and put the distress we experience at the Ego level at bay. We can leave behind the separate self and reimagine the process of aging as a healing path, realizing we are more than our bodies and minds. This can be a spiritual opportunity. Again, I recommend this book, as it also deals with preparing to die.
These frameworks to life’s last years can be helpful on many levels. To me, they are inspiring and help me find my way. I have been feeling quieter and need more time in my life just to sit and contemplate things. It’s confirming to know these years are becoming more about being than doing.
Thanks to these powerful voices we can think about how we want to age, feel supported and create more authenticity and joy in these later years.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org