The Psychology of Aging

On why the process of aging and growing old, although driven by negative force at a later stage is inherently positive and can change our perspectives on life…

Aging is one of the most normal and regular processes that affect humans both positively and negatively and along with physiological and physical changes, aging brings out many psychological changes in individuals. Although aging happens throughout life, the primary importance of aging is felt during the transition from middle to old age and could be considered as the most important stage of aging.

So what are these processes that explain aging in humans and what are the psychological theories that explain the differences in people’s thought patterns due to age related changes?

According to WHO, the world’s greying population has been growing steadily with the decrease of fertility rates and longer life expectancy and considering that aging is a part of everyone’s life it is important to understand the psychological changes that can occur during different stages of life when age becomes more than just a number. Age could be considered as largely psychological in that some pessimistic people may tend to feel older even before they are 40 whereas others consider themselves old only when they reach 60 and beyond. Age can be felt by individuals as a measure of health and physical manifestations such as greying of hair, wrinkles of skin or weakness of muscles can indicate changing age. Since most of us identify with our body, aging of the body naturally brings about aging of the mind and with declining physical strength, there may be a decline of psychological strength and this works like a cycle on age related processes. Poor psychological health in turn affects the physical well being of an individual. Although life expectancy of individuals have gone up considerably in the last few years suggesting the improvements in global health, individuals still tend to remain apprehensive about the changes in life that age will ultimately bring.

In psychology, Erik Erikson delineated certain stages of psychosocial development as applicable to adulthood or middle age as well as old age. As the individual continues to grow throughout life, psychosocially, the focus may be on generativity versus stagnation during middle age when individuals tend to contribute to their careers and family. People who choose generativity would be successful in using their skills at work or family or both otherwise with stagnation they can feel unproductive and unrelated with the world. The last stage of psychosocial development that occurs in old age brings out the dimension of integrity versus despair in which individuals look back at their achievements and accomplishments and may develop a sense of pride and integrity or may develop feelings of despair. According to Erikson, old age is a period of self reflection and will generally bring in a feeling of hopelessness or satisfaction.

I would consider middle age as primarily based on materialistic or worldly needs and old age primarily based on spiritual and existential needs. Whereas middle age is about ‘living’ and living properly and individuals focus on increasing assets, properties and savings for the future and also focus on achievements, old age is about ‘surviving’ and the primary concern is about health, illness and death related issues. In certain cases thoughts of dying can become very prominent in certain individuals and they may want to hold on to life through family or creative work which remains even after a person’s death.

Aging cannot be considered a strictly chronological process but rather a psychological process when there is a negative rather than a positive force that justifies a person’s existence. Even a child goes through the process of aging and grows up to an adult but since the child is stepping into the world and expanding horizons the process of aging for a child is positive and the primary aging phenomenon is through ‘knowing’ as a child grows up to know and contribute as an adult. Developing an identity becomes the primary motivation for life and with young adulthood, individuals quickly switch on to the ‘achieving’ mode as young adulthood is about using the knowledge gained to achieve money, fame or even enlightenment for that matter. The ‘living’ stage comes next in middle adulthood as I have discussed and at this time not only the fruits of achievements begin to reveal but the future is also secured with financial and emotional security provided by laying the foundations of family and professional life in the earlier stage. All these stages of knowing, achieving and living are positive phases although all these stages may have specific dilemmas, yet the final stage of surviving is primarily motivated by a fear of death and this negative force brings about the real process of aging. Thus it is easily understood why aging is primarily a psychological process. The fear of death reinforced in old age brings out a negative force in life and if this negative force is somehow overturned or made positive, the process of aging will no longer be seen as something negative and detrimental for an older person.

Of course, it is important to understand how the process of aging could be turned into something positive. The vast amount of literature, articles, TV programs, radio shows and newspaper columns highlight the process of aging as something largely physiological and something that has to be accepted, at best in a positive way. It’s as if aging is something negative but will have to be looked at positively. I would suggest that the process of aging being primarily psychological as explained by the fear of death, it is only caused by a negative force but it is not inherently negative and can become a positive process. I’m not suggesting cosmetic surgery or turning back time in terms of body image, but moving beyond body image and developing a ‘soul identity’ could actually completely overturn the process of aging significantly. Identifying oneself with the soul as sages do and developing a spiritual potential within could go a long way in actually preventing psychological and in turn the physiological aspects of aging. During ancient times, people led deeply spiritual lives and lived longer and looked younger than we do. Soul searching helps in overcoming fear of death and if old age is seen as a step towards one’s ultimate spiritual completion and the right time to explore other creative dimensions of life that have been ignored earlier, old age can become the most fruitful and the most positive phase in one’s life.