The powerful forces that shapes our aging parents' behavior
According to theories of human development formulated by psychologist Erik Erickson, humans go through distinct stages as they grow from infant to adult. These stages are dominated by what Erickson called "crises," that is, the conflicting impulses that drive us and facilitate growth. It's by resolving these crises that we're able to move on to the next developmental stage and eventually grow into mature adults. Much research has gone into understanding and explaining the stages children go through, and this work has helped to shape our modern theories of child development, as well as our contemporary approaches to parenting.
Much less attention has been paid to the experience of older people, but geriatric experts contend that humans continue to face developmental tasks into old age. In his book How to Say It to Seniors, author David Solie, who specializes in geriatric issues, describes the developmental tasks that the elderly face, and explains how these tasks shape their behavior -- whether they're aware of it or not.
Solie describes the crises of the elderly as a conflict between control and legacy issues. And while he writes in universal terms, it's important to remember that every individual is different, and each person's experience of aging will have a lot to do with personal and environmental factors, as well as developmental ones.
Control looms large for our parents as they experience the deterioration of their physical health and mental acuity, as well as the loss of their homes and independence and the deaths of friends and life partners. Given these monumental losses, it's no wonder that elderly people tend to fight for control over the few areas of life they're still able to manage.
In her book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, psychologist Mary Pipher argues that inevitable or not, the losses elderly people endure can be devastating. She says that many elderly people exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the same affliction suffered by many soldiers returning from war. The elderly, she says, "are ordinary healthy people for whom all hell has broken loose."
Even as they struggle to accept and come to terms with their losses and to hold on to what remains, older people are engaged in an effort to shape and understand their legacy -- that is, to comprehend what their life has meant and the memories that will live on after they die.
Coming to terms with one's legacy is a tremendous job, according to Solie, and has a powerful effect on a person's actions, whether he's aware of it or not. Helping an elderly parent identify and create his or her legacy can also be a tremendously healing process, and it can mean the difference between lonely, alienating final years or deeply rewarding ones for parent and child alike.