Saturday, June 1, 2013

Robert C. Peck's Tasks for Older Adults

Photo by Wunkai
Some people age without growing up.

Willy Loman--the main character in Arthur Millers' play Death of a Salesman--is a fictional example of stunted growth.

He has been a successful traveling salesman primarily because of his charm.

He tries to act the hero to his growing sons, who are starting to see the chinks in his armor--thanks to Loman being caught in an on-the-road extramarital affair.

Stresses within his family and problems at work (his employer's concern about low sales numbers) push Loman to a crisis.

Studying life stage theory has enriched my view of Willy Loman. I see him as someone who is stuck in his past.

Loman seems to be looking only at the challenges of midlife and not the opportunities for growth. 

Loman functions as a cautionary tale. I want to possess the courage to change with my changing life circumstances.

Stage theory can help, but the extension of the average life span to about 50 years old to now about 80 years old has rendered older theories incomplete. Erik Erikson's stage theory a bit anemic when describing midlife and late adulthood.

I recently learned that Peck thought so, too.

Robert Peck has expanded the life stage model to describe these tasks for those in midlife and late life:
  • valuing wisdom vs. valuing physical power
  • mental flexibility vs. mental rigidity
  • ego differentiation vs. work role preoccupation
  • body transcendence vs. body preoccupation
  • ego transcendence vs. ego preoccupation
Clearly, the preferred traits are those listed first in each pair: valuing wisdom, mental flexibility, ego differentiation, body transacendence, and ego transcendence. They allow growth and development.

Imagine a person who demonstrates the "opportunity for growth" traits:
She would accept changes to her body but still work to be healthy and strong. She would be a life-long student who develops new skills and interests in midlife and beyond.  She adapts, recognizing that she probably cannot hold the same social roles at 80 as she did at 20, but she would accept or even create new roles that employ her strengths. She can also develop new skills to meet her present challenges.   
Some people have a difficult time adjusting to age. I believe this is true for a number of reasons. 
  1. We as a society don't live in multi-generational communities, so we don't observe older adults develop. Most media images focus on people 15 ears old to 35 years old. (I've noted more media including people up to 45 years old; however, that still leaves many members of today's adult population). 
  2. We live in a youth-obsessed culture where physical beauty, physical strength, power and fame are revered.
  3. We are still trying to develop religious practices to support new views of spirituality that replace dogmatic, overly authoritative religious traditions that many of us dismissed as young adults. 
As the Baby Boomers move into late adulthood, they will help articulate their path to spiritual enlightenment so that others might follow and not despair when faced with late-life challenges. Members of other generations are doing this, too.

Aging is more complex and contains more opportunities for growth than many people imagine. 

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