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How Does America Treat Its Elderly Population?

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1439
  • Category: Ageism

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In developmental psychology, we learn that from birth to death we are continually maturing; meeting milestones, taking on new developmental tasks, and finding ways to help us cope with stressors. Much attention is paid to early human development, but as we increasingly age as a population, it’s important to focus on the other end. Today, aging itself is being redefined. What does it mean to be old, anyway? And how does America treat their elderly population?

Around the world populations are experiencing longer life spans due to increased access to healthcare and a better understanding of how to keep people living healthier for longer (Lachs, 31). According to statistics collected by the Administration on Aging, the United States went from having 3 million people over the age of 65 in 1900 to 35 million by the year 2000, and they estimate the by 2050 there will be 89 million people over the age of 65 (Halter, 566). This will continue to greatly impact our economy and our health and social services sectors.

The longer people live, the more diseases and disabilities they are likely to suffer from. It is estimated that around 80% of people who are 65 years or older have at least one chronic disease or disability (Halter, 566). Such diseases or disabilities like dementia, impaired mobility, impotence or incontinence have a severe impact on a person’s quality of life and ability to function independently. Sometimes, our “golden years” tend not to be so golden.

The average life expectancy in the United States is eighty-one for women and seventy-six for men, and the eighty-five-year-old and older population is now the fastest growing population in much of the developed world….[Magill’s]. This is a very good statement because with the growing population and health advances elderly people are living longer, As one elderly woman put it: “Chronologically, I’m an old woman. But physically I don’t feel old. Mentally, I don’t feel old” (Kofre, 343).

Charles Darwin, the English naturalist and major contributor to the theory of human evolution, would argue that death is the result of natural selection; a process that is expected and a natural happenstance when adverse events suffered outmatch the ability of the body to sustain life. [Magill’s]. Reading the articles I discover that there is a disconnect between the growing population and what should actually be done with our elderly.

The term ageism was coined by Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging. Like racism and sexism, ageism involves prejudice and discrimination directed toward a specific segment of the population.[ Evens Charles H]. There is a lot of negativity associated with getting older in the U.S especially when it comes to media. They portray elderly as healthy, attractive young adults laughing, dancing and playing sports. This gives younger people a sense associating older people in a negative light in the real world. When in actually elderly people need the help from the young, because of the health condition and poverty they experience.

It is becoming more common to talk about the elderly using the functional age terms young old, old old and oldest old (Feldman, 94). The functional age category of young old refers to people of chronologically older age who remain lively and in good health and spirits, the old old are those people who have a few chronic diseases and may have some mobility issues, and the oldest old are those who are very weak and can no longer take care of themselves (Feldman, 94).

Erik Erikson gave psychology an important theoretical framework to examine human development across the lifespan with. (Halter, 22). Erikson had studied under Freud but felt that Freud focused too much on childhood and sexuality (Halter, 23). Erikson believed that people continue to develop their personalities or egos and mature in different ways during their whole life (Halter, 23). He theorized that there are essentially eight stages of psychological growth and development: trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion, generativity vs. stagnation, and ego integrity vs. despair (Halter, 500).

For Erikson, each stage is an opportunity to either thrive or fail when met with physical, emotional, intellectual or interpersonal challenges (Erikson, 129).

If a person can effectively meet the new challenges that come along with new developmental tasks and stages, then they can happily and successfully move on to the next developmental stage. If they are unable to adapt however, they can stay in the same stage for a longer time than their peers, become dissatisfied or depressed, and even regress to an earlier stage that they feel relatively comfortable at but that is developmentally inappropriate for their age (Halter, 500). Failure to overcome a maturational crisis may be caused by a person having a faulty support system of peers and family or no support at all, tragic life events like war or death of a loved one or the absence of good role models growing up and sometimes requires the intervention of a psychologist or psychiatrist to help a person get out of a rut (Halter, 500).

According to Erikson development continues across the lifespan, even the elderly have a psycho-social crisis to try to complete successfully (Erikson, 106). For older adults, the developmental task is to reminisce over their life and feel that it had meaning and purpose (Feldman, 295). The successful completion of this task is called integrity (Erikson, 106). With this outcome, a person would feel contented by what they had seen, done and accomplished over the span of their life. They may feel that they have learned and experienced a lot and would like to share their mistakes and triumphs with receptive younger generations who could learn from their experiences. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, many elderly are fending for themselves or in nursing home.

A person in Erikson’s final stage of human development who does not resolve the crisis of life meaning and purpose may fall into a depression, feeling like they have wasted their life and may fear or their impending death (Halter, 22-23). As Erikson wrote, the eighth stage of development may be one of mourning due to “autonomy weakened, initiative lost, intimacy missed, generativity neglected” (Erikson, 63).

They may feel full of shame and doubt when they can no longer make decisions for themselves or fully take care of themselves (Erikson, 108). Guilt may set in when an older person can no longer accomplish a long laundry list of all the tasks they used to do and may personally hold themselves to a standard that is no longer realistic (Erikson, 108). Inferiority may take hold if they can no longer do everything they used to do or fill all the roles they used to play (Erikson, 109-110). Isolation commonly occurs as a result of primary and secondary aging changes that limit mobility as well as a shrinking peer group due to the increased mortality rate that accompanies older age (Erikson, 111). Finally stagnation can be a defining characteristic when an elderly person is not viewed by society as contributing anything worthwhile once they stop working or require more care than they are physically able to give (Erikson, 112).

The psychologist Robert Peck explored success narratives of older development through a framework of three developmental

tasks:redefinition-of-self-versus-preoccupation-with-work-role,body-transcendence-versus-body-preoccupation, and ego-transcendence-versus-ego-preoccupation (Feldman, 294). The first task refers to redefining oneself after retirement by focusing more on attributes and hobbies, the second is about finding ways to overcome the physical changes and challenges that come with aging and the third is all about appreciating that while death is inevitable and impending, there are still contributions to society that can be made and it is important to reflect on and be proud of the contributions already made over a long life (Feldman, 294).

Looking back over the years as a way to connect with others, to find a means of continual contribution to society or as a way to find satisfaction with self is an important element of human growth and development in our later years.

The various ways in which we cope with challenges and meet milestones when we enter life’s “stage” have repercussions throughout our lives and continue to be no less important as we near our “exit” in old age. As world populations reach greater chronological ages in greater numbers, we will continue to evolve our notions of old age and hopefully find more and more ways to live up to the expectations of the “golden years”.                   

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