Having reached “old age” and recently turned 68, in addition to everything else that goes with advancing age I am involved in what Erikson called “ego-integrity.”
There are well recognized “age related development tasks” that change as we mature, and then age. Of course an infant’s assigned developmental task include learning to walk and talk and learn to socialize, etc. Then teenagers must learn to separate from their parents and start to develop independent judgment, young adults decide what they want to do for a living and prepare for that, and so on…
In addition, older adults are generally challenged to create a positive sense of their lives as a whole. The feeling that life has had order and meaning results in happiness (cf. ego-integrity; Erikson, 1986). Older adults also have to adjust to decreasing physical strength and health. The prevalence of chronic and acute diseases increases in old age. Thus, older adults may be confronted with life situations that are characterized by not being in perfect health, serious illness, and dependency on other people. Moreover, older adults may become caregivers to their spouses (e.g., Schulz and Beach, 1999). Some older adults have to adjust to the death of their spouses. This task arises more frequently for women than for man. After they have lived with a spouse for many decades, widowhood may force older people to adjust to loneliness, moving to a smaller place, and learning about business matters.
Survivors of abuse and trauma must also accomplish these age-related developmental tasks, but trauma or abuse can interfere with the completion of these tasks, whether is is a child learning to trust their caregivers (which is an early developmental task) or a teenager involved in an abusive love relationship, or any other stage. Abuse can hinder our accomplishments of these important tasks and milestones. Failure to accomplish these tasks can cripple us for life, or at the least, slow down our healthy development.
Some things in nature are critical. For example a kitten is born with it’s eyes closed, and they open about 10 days of age. However, if the kitten’s eyes are taped shut and not allowed to open til a few days later, that cat will be blind for life. A wolf cub bonds to its pack between the ages of 12 and 16 weeks, if it is for some reason not able to bond with a “pack” it will never be able to successfully bond. The great Pyrenees dogs that I used to guard my flock of goats also bonds to their “pack” animals between those critical weeks. So I would place the pup in a small pen with a sheep or goat, and I did not pay much attention to or pet the dog, letting it bond with the animal in the pen. It would accept me as a part of its pack but would not lie around the house and guard me, it would stay with the flock, protecting them.
As I have approached and reached the ranks of the elderly, I’ve given a great deal of thought to how I had wanted my life to turn out, versus how it actually turned out. Because I was very close to my grandparents, I always wanted grandchildren and planned to be close to them, the way my maternal grandparents had been to me. Well, we know how that worked out. For a long time I was very sad that there was little hope for me to have grandchildren at an early age, but I’ve worked through the what I wish was versus what I actually have. After my husband died, I felt very alone, etc so I allowed myself to have my feet swept away by the first psychopath who was trolling for a victim. But through the years since that debacle I have come to peace without a “love relationship” in my life. One is a whole number, and not just half of two.
I can look back at many things that I “wished I had” and “hoped for” that never came true. I realize now that my deep and pathological desire to find approval from my mother came from the fact I never had it as a child. There are many healthy developmental tasks that I did not complete as a child or younger adult so I’ve had to re -parent” myself, as some therapists would say. I have had to examine my life and decide what things I missed completing, and then work on completing those tasks where I can. Fortunately, humans are not (always) like the kittens with the taped up eyes, and remain blind for life. We can, if we work at it, learn to complete the tasks we missed because of this or that trauma in our lives during a developmental stage in our lives.
Socrates is credited with the quote that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I won’t go so far as to say life is not worth living, but I do agree that we must and should examine ourselves, and find where we may have missed accomplishing one developmental task or another, and rectify that if we can.
“Getting older isn’t for sissies” is something my friends and I frequently say to each other, but coming to acceptance of what is versus what we want is possible and healthy. I’ve always been physically independent and strong physically, and it gripes me to have to ask for help doing something physical, but it’s a fact of life I’m not as strong as I used to be. In fact, my wonderful doctor, who is also my friend, said to me recently during an office visit when I was complaining about being “short of breath” and she asked me what made me short of breath and I complained about not being able to carry fifty pounds of livestock feed very far, and she laughed and said, “Joyce, you are old and fat, and not expected to be able to carry 50 pounds on a 50 mile hike, get over it!” And of course she is right! And I appreciate her honesty with me. (though of course she would not say anything like that to a regular patient!)
Reaching that stage where you are happy with where you are NOW can be difficult, especially if you have suffered trauma, betrayal, or abuse. We can lose our dreams and fantasies of what we want out of life, but we can make new dreams and goals, no matter how old we are or how much we have been disappointed in our lives in the past! Each day we get another chance to “start over” and march toward healing.