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Geriatric Psychology: Growing Old in America


Growing Old in the United States

geriatric psychologyGrowing old in the United States seems to be viewed by many in modern society as a sad and negative occurrence. "After the age 65, the road turns downhill, with an ever-increasing slope, racing quickly toward death. This perception is projected by many institutions and values in our culture, especially by the media and advertising, where the experience of the elderly is distorted and discounted, if represented at all (Sperry and Prosen, 1996,p.5)". When this negative image is continually perpetuated throughout society the aged cannot help but feel worthless and left out. The message seems to be that you must be young to be worthwhile.



However, the body of knowledge related to successful aging continues to grow exponentially. Viewed from a perspective of the social sciences, successful aging may be considered a quality of the transaction between the changing person and the changing society over the entire life span. Focusing on the developmental processes, some experts have stated that successful aging is a social and psychological construct that reflects the always-emerging, socially esteemed ways of adapting to and reshaping the prevailing, culturally recognized conditions of mind, body, and community for the elderly of a society. This definition emphasizes the process of adaptation. Adaptation in its most global, philosophical form, has been defined by Darwin as the criterion for determining success for any organism. But how, does the process of adaptation figure into the scenario of successful aging? Is it a rather discrete event, or a developmental process?

Sperry and Prosen (1996) have stated:

Aging is indeed a developmental process, and that the elderly in general will be better served if theorists, clinicians, and researchers develop more positive images of aging. This amounts to a paradigm shift in our thinking about the older adult. To do so we must first confront the myths and misconceptions we have about aging and carefully consider the ever-increasing evidence that aging is in fact a development process (p. 3).

Until recently, developmental theory in psychology was the study of psychological processes in children and early adults. "Besides Ericksonís theory of psychosocial stages there have been relatively few theories of psychological development in the later years "( Sperry and Prosen, 1996, p. 10).Some psychodynamic theorists have offered that development is an ongoing, dynamic process; while childhood development is focused primarily on the formation of psychic structure, adult development is concerned with the continuing evolution of the existing psychic structure and with its use; the fundamental development issues of childhood continue as central aspects of adult development but in altered forms; the developmental processes in adulthood are influenced by the adult's recent past as well as the adultís childhood past; development in adulthood is influenced by the body and physical changes; and, a central phase- specific theme of adult development is the normative crisis precipitated by the recognition and acceptance of the finiteness of time and the inevitability of an individual's death.

Additionally, Levinson (1986) has conceptualized a stage theory akin to Erickson, in which there is a like structure with alternating periods of structure building and structure changing, which he calls "transitions", based upon extensive biographical interviews that form the empirical basis for the stage theory. Although he has specified, with precision, the developmental period and the era's of early and middle adulthood, he has yet to do the same for the period of late adulthood. Possibly in the future, developmental researchers may be able to follow older cohorts into their later years and thus be able to elaborate developmental stages related to late adulthood in an effort to more adequately understand the continuum of normal development throughout the entire span of the senior years.

By  Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist 

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