Life’s Stages and Late Life Opportunities

It’s been said that the longest journey you’ll ever take is the one taken in your mind. Maybe that’s because you travel that road twice:  Once as you live your life and again as you relive it.

As I researched this column on the stages of life, I found formal theories are relatively scarce. The most popular one is Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Stages theory, in which he argues that development is largely over by adolescence. By contrast, one of Freud’s students, Erik Erikson (1902-1994) believed that development continues throughout life. Erikson took the foundation laid by Freud and extended it through adulthood and into late life.

Erikson’s initial Life Stage Theory characterizes an individual advancing through eight life stages as a function of negotiating biological forces and socio-cultural forces. The first stage is Oral-Sensory from birth to 2 years old, followed by Muscular-Anal 2-4 years, Locomotor-Genital 4-5 years, Latency 5-12 years, Adolescence 13-19 years, Young Adulthood 20-24 years, Middle Adulthood 25-64 years and Late Adulthood, 65 to death.

Each stage is characterized by a psychosocial crisis of two conflicting concepts. The first Oral-Sensory stage for instance is characterized by a tension between Trust and Mistrust of the world. If the individual successfully reconciles these forces, he or she emerges from that stage with a corresponding virtue. The virtue in the first stage successfully navigated is Hope. In this example, the infant enters into the Muscular-Anal stage (autonomy vs. shame and doubt) with more trust than mistrust, and carries the virtue of Hope into the remaining life stages. Successful navigation of the Muscular-Anal Stage results in the person carrying the virtue of Will into the remaining life cycles.

By Middle Adulthood, according to Erikson, the central tasks are:

  • expressing love through more than sexual contact
  • maintaining healthy life patterns
  • developing a sense of unity with a life partner
  • helping children to be responsible adults
  • relinquishing the central role in the lives of our grown children
  • acceptance of our children’s mates and friends, creating a comfortable home
  • being proud of accomplishments of self and mate/spouse
  • reversing roles with aging parents
  • achieving mature, civic and social responsibility
  • adjusting and adapting to physical changes of middle age, and
  • using our leisure time creatively.

In Late Adulthood, conflicting concepts of ego integrity and despair await negotiation. Establishing a sense of trust in others, developing a sense of identity in society, and helping the next generation prepare for the future leaves us old and tired. Nonetheless, successfully reaching Late Adulthood brings us another great challenge and a great opportunity.

Erikson believed if we see our lives as unproductive, or feel guilty about our past, or feel that we did not accomplish our life goals, we’ll most likely become dissatisfied with life and develop a sense of personal despair. This sense of despair often leads the individual to depression and hopelessness.

By contrast, success negotiating Late Adulthood leads to the virtue of Wisdom, which enables a person to look back on their life with a sense of acceptance, closure, satisfaction and completeness. The successful navigation and negotiations of this stage will allow a person to accept death without fear.

However, Erikson has also noted that, “Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our society doesn’t provide a concept of the whole life. Late Adulthood, the eighth life stage, is accompanied by contemplation and reflection, a search for final answers and resolutions and grand insights. Unfortunately, for many people it is also accompanied by serious challenges of a failing health. Now, in this age of increasing life spans with many people living well into their 90s and even 100s, Erikson offers a ninth stage for his theory.

It was while Erikson and his wife were themselves in their late 80s that they decided a ninth stage was necessary. The primary difference between the ninth stage and the eighth stage is that the elders no longer have the luxury of retrospective despair over their lives. They are likely to be more concerned with which body part will stop working that day. However, all is not as bleak as it seems. If the old person can get past the despair, the way is clear for gerotranscendence, the stage at which he or she is peacefully ready to move on and accept whatever may come.

It’s my belief that the ability of individuals to successfully navigate this ninth stage of development is inextricably connected to our society’s accommodations for octogenarians (80s), nonagenarians (90s) and centenarians (100s). How have we planned to provide a continuing sense of community for the very old, who have often lost their spouse and friends and even children? How do we best design elderly housing and care communities that keep them engaged and making contributions, feeling purposeful and continuing to grow?

One way to do this is through a redesign of the types of communities we build that are meant for the elderly. It is generally agreed that what we have today, will need to be further advanced to meet the needs and expectations of the Boomer generation. Examples I find most exciting fall into the “Intentional Community” category. In my next column, I’ll more deeply explore the art of creating an Intentional Community.


Robin Avery is a Gerontologist, Consultant, Developer and Operator of assisted living communities, with a Masters Degree from The Naropa University. He can be reached at ravy2003 @ msn.com.


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