Every human has the essential need to feel a sense of contribution, whether to their own lives, the lives of their family members, their relationships with others, and/or society. Contribution takes on a different set of meanings and forms for each person.
As a pioneer in the field of psychology, Erik Erikson helped develop one of the major theoretical philosophies of human development. Erikson, Erikson & Kivnick (1986) noted that elders have the time and ability to contemplate the meaning of life. They can take life’s lessons and integrate them into their beliefs about life, their behaviors and their interactions with those around them. Additionally, because of the wisdom of their years, elders have a greater ability to adapt to change.
As Erikson explained, all stages of life build upon one another to create an entire psychology of a person. Erickson’s eight psychosocial stages involve the entire life cycle, integral to life in time (Kivnick & Wells, 2013). Erikson’s theory states that development continues throughout adulthood, well into older age. Erikson acknowledged that identity issues faced in the early stages of life can recur, especially when people have reached mid-life and retirement (Osborne, 2009). Thus, elders face many challenges of identity later in life. For instance, in retirement, elders often feel a loss of identity, once work and career are no longer an integral part of their everyday experience. This can lead to psychological challenges, and individuals can regress to identity challenges faced earlier in life.
I had the honor of interviewing a woman last year who was the model for Erikson’s theory. She was in her late eighties and described common life events, experiences and concerns associated with each of Erikson’s life stages. Today, she is fully involved in her world. She continues to develop as she copes with losses of friends and family members.
The adaptation and resiliency exhibited by elders can be attributed to the integration of the experiences of stages of life. As a society, we must realize the opportunity to promote the psychological health and wellbeing of older adults. With the current social construction of aging and retirement, we risk isolating our elders and taking away the process of vital involvement that elders need to experience in order to make meaning out of their lives and help others do the same.
In fact, the principal of vital involvement requires us to recognize that elders influence their families, their communities and the field of gerontology (Osborne, 2009). When I visit long-term care facilities, I often become saddened by the lack of social interaction among the residents. I see many of individuals staying in their own rooms, day after day. There is often a sense within the facilities that the medical care is enough. We need to find ways to enrich our communities so that all individuals can receive the care they need, whether medical or social, and participate in meaningful ways.