Aging Well

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There are six well studied life tasks, first proposed by Erik Erickson and modified somewhat by George Vaillant.

The six adult life tasks are as follows:


Identity:  Prior to entering the adult world it is well that the adolescent achieve a sense of identity: a sense of one’s own self, as sense that one’s values, politics, passions, and tastes are one’s own and not one’s parents.   Only then can the young adult move on to the next stage of life, Intimacy, and forge close reciprocal bonds with a mate.  There needs to be a sustained separation from social, residential, economic, and ideological dependence upon family of origin.    Such separation derives as much from the identification and internalization of important childhood figures a sit does form the ability to master modern life.  If this task is not accomplished, even by age 50, there is an inability to master satisfying work or achieve sustained intimate friendship.


Intimacy:  The task of living with another person in an interdependent, reciprocal, committed and contented fashion for a decade or more seems neither desirable nor possible for the young adult.  Once achieved, however, the capacity for intimacy is as effortless as riding a bicycle.  Several women in the Terman study achieved intimacy with a close female friend in an asexual relationship.  Homosexual relationships dropped out of the study.


Career Consolidation:  Mastery of this task involves expanding one’s personal identity to assume a social identity within the world of work.  On a desert island one can have a hobby but not a career, for career involve other people.  Individuals with personality disorders often manifest a lifelong inability to work.  There are four crucial elements that transform a hobby into a career identity: contentment, compensation, competence, and commitment.  Obviously, such a career can be “wife and mother” or “husband and father”.


Generativity:  Mastery of this task involves the demonstration of a clear capacity to unselfishly guide the next generation.  Generativity reflects the capacity to give the self away.  Generativity reflects a capacity to be in relationships where one “cares”

for those younger than oneself, and simultaneously respects the autonomy of others.  Generativity  (and leadership) means to be in a relationship in which one gives up much of the control parents retain over young children and learns to hold loosely.

Generativity means community building.  It can mean serving as a consultant, guide, mentor, or coach to the young adults in the larger society. 

Research shows that between he ages of 30 and 45 our need for achievement declines and our need for community and affiliation increase.


Keeper of the Meaning:  The role of keeper of the meaning is less selective than generativity, which involves the care of one person rather than another.  Justice, unlike care, means not taking sides.  The focus of a Keeper of the Meaning is on conservation and preservation of the culture in which one lives and its institutions, rather than on the development of its children.  Some people may feel that such a dispassionate approach to life is stodgy, but that misses the point.  To preserve one’s culture involves developing a concern that extends beyond one’s immediate community.  This is not trivial distinction making.  Consider for a moment the difference in social maturation between the partisan George W Bush who called the other side “The Axis of Evil”, and a wise leader like Abraham Lincoln who did his very best to heal and forgive the wounds of civil war.

The generative person cares for another in a direct, future oriented relationship; for example, as a mentor or teacher.  In contrast, the Keeper of the Meaning speaks for past cultural achievements and guides groups and bodies of people toward the preservation of past traditions.  Consider the simple and universal example of grandparents.  Who has not known a seventy—year –old woman who was able to be closer, wiser, more empathetic toward her grandchildren than she ever had been in the prime of her life toward her own children?  They, and they alone, elicit a special trust from grandchildren and teach them meaningfully about the past.


Integrity:  integrity is the last of life’s tasks.   It is an experience that conveys some world order and spiritual sense.  It is the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity could allow for no substitutions.  If care is the virtue of generativity then wisdom is the virtue of integrity.  This kind of wisdom is a detached concern with life itself, in the face of death itself.  It maintains and learns to convey an integrity of experience about one’s life in spite of decline in bodily and mental function.



Emotional Maturation: developing increasingly adaptive coping mechanisms

Successful aging means giving to others joyfully whenever one is able, receiving from others gratefully whenever one needs it, and being selfish enough to develop one’s own self in between.  Such a balance comes not only form following Erickson’s orderly sequence of life tasks but also employing elegant unconscious coping mechanisms designed to make lemonade out of lemons.

We need to be aware of some relatively maladaptive, unhealthy coping strategies: projection, passive aggression, dissociation, acting out, and fantasy.  We often associate such strategies with adolescence and personality disorders.  In essence they are sins against others.  With projection unacknowledged feelings are attributed to others.  With it also comes prejudice and injustice collecting. Passive-aggressive individuals turn anger against themselves towards others in the most provocative ways.  This is the proverbial cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.  Theatrical type people have the capacity to disassociate themselves from painful emotion and replace them with pleasant affect as if they were on stage.  In real life we scorn those with disassociation tendencies as being “in denial” and “self-absorbed”.  Acting out obscures fantasies ideas and feelings with tantrums and impulsive conduct such as delinquency and child abuse.

Schizoid fantasy replaces real human relationships with imaginary friends… a habit that is chilling to the recipient of such engagement.


Don Crowe, PhD



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