Three older friends smiling for the camera

Becoming an adult is quite a process. As I have observed over the years, many of us do not do it very well. What do I mean? Well I am going to start from the beginning. In my education at University of California Berkeley and UC San Francisco, I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Erik Erikson, a world renowned developmental psychologist. In fact, he founded life stage developmental theory. Erikson explained the challenges throughout the life course by breaking down our development into eight stages.
The first stage of the Erikson life course is in infancy, where babies learn basic trust and mistrust. This stage is dependent upon the mother’s quality of the maternal relationship, reflecting inner perceptions of trust and meaning. Failure to develop this trust will result in fear in the baby and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable.

The second stage is autonomy vs. shame and doubt. This early childhood of 1-3 year olds where toilet training is the dominate focus.

In stage three, preschool children struggle to understand the difference between initiative and guilt. Here the child develops the ability to do things on their own, such as dress him or herself. If not functioning well, guilt about making his/her own choices will develop. However, most guilt is quickly compensated by a sense of accomplishment.

Stage four, pre-adolescence children learn about industry vs. inferiority. The child compares self-worth to others and develops a sense of competence. The child can recognize major differences in personal abilities as compared to other children. Erikson places some emphasis on the teacher, who should ensure that children do not feel inferior.

In the fifth stage called adolescence, teenagers experience the challenge of gaining identity vs. role confusion. This is a time when 12-18 year olds question the self. Who am I? How do I fit in? Where am I going in life? Erikson believes that if the parents allow the child to explore they will find their own identity. However, if the parents continually push him/her to conform to their views, the teen will face identity confusion.

The sixth stage, young adulthood, is when young people gain insight to life when dealing with the challenge of intimacy vs. isolation. Between the ages of 18-35, dating, marriage, family and friendships are developed. By successfully forming loving relationships with other people, individuals are able to experience love and intimacy. Those who fail to form lasting relationships may feel isolated and alone.
In stage seven, or middle adulthood, people experience the challenge of trying to make a difference – generativity vs. stagnation and self-absorption. This second stage of adulthood, between the ages of 35-64, a person is either making progress in their career or unsure of what they want. It is during this time that a person is enjoying raising their children that gives them a sense of purpose. If a person is not comfortable with the way their life is progressing, they’re usually regretful about the decisions and feel a sense of uselessness.

In the final stage is old age, which people are learning about the challenge of ego integrity vs. despair. This stage generally incorporates the 65+. Retirement, transitioning or encore period has been achieved or in process. Many people look back on their lives and feel great accomplishment and a sense of integrity. Conversely, those who had a difficult time during middle adulthood may look back and feel a sense of despair.As we advance into old-old age and try to maintain our independence in our own homes, many of us become isolated and alone. Family move across country, spouses and friends die, and we become less mobile. All these elements lead to social isolation and premature death.

In order to combat the any social isolation or deterioration as we advance in to old age, the following actions are recommended:

  • Participate in social senior groups. Contact your local information center, senior services, or sports club for ideas of groups that meet in your community. Senior centers have been established to help ease the transition of aging. They plan activities such as exercise, meals, games, and trips.
  • Educate yourself, learn new skills. It’s important to realize that as you age, you need to be involved in learning new abilities and seeking brain stimulation. Universities, community colleges, and elder learning centers (e.g., Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) provide great opportunities for brain stimulation.
  • Volunteer or find a part-time job. Studies have shown that people who have had a variety of jobs are more apt to be interested in continuing socially as they age. Those who volunteer live happier and healthier lives.
    Finally, church or religious groups are a great place to find support or social groups for elders, as well as a variety of giving mechanisms that contribute to a healthy life.

In short, being healthy and happy, as well as living longer and stronger lives is a lifelong developmental lifestyle that is available to all. It is advantageous to start early, but it is almost never too late to take action and change your lifestyle to live longer, healthier lives that “add life to years.”