Aging Stereotype.

Aging Stereotype. Most of the books about life after age 60 emphasizes 'how to hold onto' the prized abilities of adulthood. Your aging is viewed as a decline, a series of losses - until you reach the ultimate loss - the loss of life itself. This view of lie after age 50 is embedded in much of the current literature. It is an Aging Stereotype - and it mistaken.

Current psychology and even gerontology seem to favor adulthood as the peak of human development. (This is not surprising since most practicing psychologists and gerontologists are adults.)

Background for understanding Aging Stereotype

There was a time when children were seen as 'little adults'. But after Jean Piaget suggested that 'children develop', that childhood is a special phase of human life, that it is not just 'adulthood writ small' and that children are a worthy object of scientific study, the field of child psychology has burgeoned.

Pick up any current undergraduate college catalog and you will see many courses about childhood and its various 'stages'. Basic to all these courses is the idea childhood and adulthood aver very different stages of human development and that moving to adulthood is the 'telos' or goal of human beings.

Childhood is a long preparation for adulthood and providing a child with a 'good childhood experiences' will allow that child to mature into a productive and happy adult. And if an adult is not productive and happy, the 'cause' is usually assumed to be negative childhood experiences.

Adulthood is the goal. Adulthood is seen at a most important life stage. Adults make the economy work, they give birth to and rear children, They create laws, lead the nations and are generally viewed as the 'movers and doers of society'. There is nothing in adult psychology that mirrors the notion found in child psychology that this particular stage of human development is a preparation for a new and even more important stage, that of Elderhood.

Instead of viewing the stage after adulthood as the 'crowning achievement' of life, we are given the Aging Stereotype - of the stage after adulthood as a a time when our lives are in decline. The Aging Stereotype.Note that the stage of human development that follows adulthood is called 'aging' - (as though going from age 17 to age 29 is NOT aging.) The Aging Stereotype describes our last stage of development as a long, slow decline from adulthood - a period of losses and grieving the bygone adult powers and prestige.

Such are the fundamental beliefs of the who hold an Aging Stereotype. Those who hold this view spend much energy trying to figure out how people can 'hold onto' adult characteristics and skills. At the same time they refuse elders any of the power and prestige of adulthood - even if they retain many adult skills.

The Aging Stereotype is at best a false view of human development after age 60 and at worst it is degrading to those in the last third of their lives.

Alternative view

There is an alternative to Aging Stereotype - a view that is 'fits the facts' This view holds that there are at least 3 big stages of human development: childhood, adulthood and elderhood AND that goal of human existence is progressive growth though these three stages. Why? So that at the end of ones life you are ready to move on because you have lived a full and complete human life. You have been a child, an adult and an elder.

Yes, there is a third stage of human development, Elderhood and using this name removes any negative Aging Stereotype. (It also removes current bias concerning the primacy of adulthood.)

But I have yet to see a course on Elderhood listed in any college catalog. Oh, there are courses in gerontology and aging. And most of these concentrate on 'inevitable decline' and 'how we can help these people'.

Now of course there are losses as you move to elderhood. Just as there were losses when you moved from childhood to adulthood, so too there are losses in moving from adulthood to elderhood. But somehow in the current state of things the losses of adult tasks and powers are seen as the ONLY losses that count. No one speaks of any of the losses children face as they move into adulthood - only those adults face when moving into elderhood.

Perhaps this skewing of psychology towards the primacy of adulthood is caused by the fact that most academic studies are done by adults and adults have not yet lived as elders. They have no experiential knowledge of their own elderhood and so they judge everything out of their own biasconcerning the centrality and importance of adulthood.

Adults have no experiential grasps of the joys of Elderhood and because of their Aging Stereotype, they do not know now how to ask elders about their special joys. In fact, most adults believe that there are no 'as yet to be experienced joys' beyond their own stage of human development.

To understand the unconscious bias towards their own adulthood, consider what would happen to views of Adulthood if most of what we knew about it was written by children. Because children have only experienced childhood and have no personal experiences of being an adult, they ,too, would concentrate on what a person loses in becoming an adult.

Ask children what it is like to be an adult and after they say a few things related to power or prestige the children are likely to talk about things that are lost in becoming an adult.Depending on their age, children say that in Adulthood:

  • You can not play all day.
  • You have to go to work all the time.
  • You need to think and worry about money
  • No one tucks you in each night... or takes care of you when you are sick
  • You can not play in Little League (or Pop WArner or...)
  • You have lots of RESPONSIBILITY
  • The list goes on....

Notice, that children know that adults have power but when it gets to the nitty gritty, children can not help but notice the things they would lose by being an adult. For children, adulthood is about losses. Why? Because children have not experienced and do not understand the special joys of adulthood: the exhilaration of a job well done or of romantic love, or sex or....

Children can not value what they do not know. If children were to write the textbooks about adulthood, these texts might be full of advice as to how to hold onto some of the joys and experience of childhood. Just as adults who DO write the texts about Elderhood give advice about how to 'hold onto' aspects of adulthood but offer NO INSIGHT into any of the special joys or tasks of Elderhood. So it is that we have the Aging Stereotype of 'inevitable decline'.

To summarize:

Adults have NOT experienced the joys of Elderhood. Once they get past a few cliches, they tend to focus on the losses that they, as adults, will experience. Adults do not perceive the positive values of elderhood because they have no clue as to what they are and just as children do not imagine thatthere are a host special joys to being an adult, so, too, adults do not imagine that there are special joys of Elderhood. It never occurs to them to ask about them and even if they were to ask, most adults have no psychological context to appreciate the answers.

Personal reflection

When I think about this huge gap between adults even well meaning adults, and elders, I often think of a philosophy meeting that took place in Bogata, Columbia in the 1980's. A prominent psychology professor from Brazil made a presentation and he said something that impressed me very much.

He said that Erikson's stages of human development offered a psychology for the developed world and that if he believed that his people could only reach the higher stages of human development AFTER they met their needs for food, clothing and shelter, he would have to believe that NONE of his people were capable of peak human experiences.

But, he said, in fact it is not true that his people are denied peak human experiences. This researcher held that we can reach the highest of human experience in the very act of obtaining one's daily food and shelter.

For me, that was an explosive moment. I realized that he was correct - that many a subsistence farmer could, like the ancient monks of the dessert and anchorites of old, reach the highest stages of human development just as well (and som eone claim even more often) that the well supplied middle class person in my city.

Not to go astray...I do hink that models of aging and elderhood circulating in much of academia and social serviceagencies today are about as helpful to elders as Erikson's stages of human development are to subsistence farmers across the globe.

What elders need is a new psychology - one written by elders. But of course, this makes for a 'Catch 22' situation. You can not know the joys of elderhood until you give up the roles of adulthood. But you need an 'academic affiliation' before any respectable academic journals will take your work seriously. So just when you might be able to offer some real insight into Elderhood tasks....no one wants to publish your work anymore.

Is it possible to remedy this situation? Well, maybe, some academic groups might call upon elders once gainfully employed as researchers to share what they now know ...or maybe some researchers will begin to ask elders about their joys and not just their losses.

Anything is possible. Meantime do not be intimidated into believing that aging and Elderhood is any more about losses than was the transition from childhood to adulthood just about losses.

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