Aging and Psycho-Social Changes

“Oh, I’m my own Grandpa’…Yes I’m my own Grandpa’…”

Or so the song goes.

Some days I feel that way. When my Dad was 71 I used to think “Holy crap! He’s 71. He’s old!’ I would have been about 42. Even though he could still build steps down to the lake at the cottage. And shoot a partridge dead on at any distance with one shot. And fix his manifold pipe on his station-wagon. And catch the biggest muskie. My Mom at 71 could still go bowling, and make fantastic dinners, and oil paint, and play the accordion.

Dad always said “time speeds up the older you get”, and boy, was he right about that. It just feels like yesterday I had two horses, 2 goats, 9 steers, 100 chickens, and 32 racing pigeons while living on my old farm on the 2nd Concession. That was 38 years ago. But I can hear them, and smell them, and picture how I had to wash the horses down after we had a long ride, and free the goats horns from the page-wire fence ’cause she thought the grass was greener on the other side. And I remember the sauna parties we had on Saturday night, when 3-4 naked couples would polish off a case of beer and fry ourselves in the interest of cleanliness at +85C. Then jump in the snow at -20C. And in the Spring have to fish frogs out of the well. And plant our 40′ x 60” garden with enough veggies to get us through winter. And go to Community Center dances and dance to Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and Bobby Curtola, with other men’s wives who by 11 pm had no idea who you were. Occasionally, I didn’t either, but those were the days when tomorrow was a sure thing.

But today, 6 years after having had prostate cancer (I’m still clear), and suffering the loss of two children 30-40 years ago to an inherited terminal disease, and not teaching university any more due to poverty salaries for part-time instructors, and losing a college director position because the college owners of 124 colleges in Canada and California went bankrupt, and losing three of my best buddies to disease in this past year; yet, enjoying my second marriage, my two grow daughters, and living in a large house I designed, on 100 private acres, with good friends as tenants, and a trout stream 100 feet away, and now doing consulting and publishing work – life has been good for the past 12 years. But time is accelerating.

Everyone has a story to tell. The psychology of self-change from external ‘beyond-your-control’ events, and of internal struggles along the way, is different yet similar with most people I have met. Adaptations of mood, of new talents and interests, of new relationships and responsibilities, of physical changes, of health and job and finance changes …..all figure prominently in the trajectory to older age we all experience. One’s life view, one’s values, interests, and community of friends, tend to solidify into a more manageable, smaller world, as we age. Things become more predictable yet often more significant when things go wrong, especially our health.

The people with whom we would trust our lives and deepest secrets we can now count on one hand. The obituaries become read more often, and eating ‘experimental food dishes’ becomes less interesting. At “retirement”, especially, one’s perspectives on mortality, sexuality, appearances, hobbies, routines, parenting/grand-parenting, and recreation, take on a whole new meaning. This “life review” process of reminiscing can be gratifying or can lead to despair, anxiety and depression depending on the amount and degree of regret experienced. But the life review process is neither universal nor specific to older age. because any number of events can trigger a review, e.g., loss of a loved one, personal bankruptcy, loss of a job, divorce, or major health concerns. Levinson’s (1978) “seasons of life” theory seems to more accurately reflect the ‘stage theory’ of life than those of Erikson, Piaget, Freud or Jung. Levinson suggests that we all go through four psycho-social ‘eras’: 1. childhood to the end of adolescence (age 0-22); 2. early adulthood (ages 17-45); 3. middle age (40-65); and 4. late adulthood (60 and over). Adjusting to and balancing changing personal circumstances and a changing social world, predicts how successful one’s development becomes.

So changes in cognition (intelligence, learning, memory) occur along the path of life. And physical changes may limit or enhance life experiences. My uncle and aunt lived to be 96 and 94 respectively, and were intellectually sharp and reasonably mobile before they died. My wife’s mother is 89 and still drives to the grocery store. And my friend’s mother is 100, lives alone, and can still win most of the time in a card game. Conversely, I have lost friends and relatives in their 50s, 60s, and 70s to health problems.

As well as being a lifelong process, ‘aging’ as stages is socially constructed rather than inevitable. Each of us is a product of time, pace and circumstance, and yet only broad generalizations can be made about what constitutes aging. One of my university students was 90 when she took my 2nd-year sociology of education course. Having sex at 80 is not uncommon. Climbing a tall tree at 75 has been done, I’m sure. And running a marathon at 77, sky-diving in the Andes at 76, and writing a famous book at 82 – have all been done.

We have to avoid the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ syndrome of assuming that because we have reached a certain age, we must act a certain way in spite of our psycho-social and physical integrity. Life can be too short, and can speed up too fast. There are many things to put in one’s “bucket list”. Tomorrow is a new day.

Source (2): Levinson, D. (1978). The Seasons of a Man’s Life. (1996). The Seasons of a Woman’s Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.





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