Some Aspects of Ageing and Social Relationships Part 2
John W. Osborne, Ph.D
Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta
In a study of retirement leisure patterns Peppers (1976) looked at four patterns. They were active-social, active-isolate, sedentary-social, sedentary-isolate. The four most popular activities came from each of the four patterns while the ten most popular activities were isolate activities. An implication of this study is that older people enjoy time alone and perhaps spend much of their activity time alone.
Anthony Storr (1988) has convincingly challenged the received wisdom regarding the relationship between mental health and social relationships. The common prejudice is that more rather than less social contact is good for us. Storr points to the fact, mentioned above, that the longer we live the more solitude we are likely to encounter as a result of the death of our friends and family. He also challenges the notion that happiness is a function of our social involvement and that non-intimate social relationships are inferior to intimate social relationships. He points out that isolation provides opportunities for insight, fantasy, creativity and inner security. He provides many historical examples of people who have had successful lives without being in an intimate relationship. For some people their work or creative interests are more important than social relationships. Storr critiques the notion that happiness revolves around intimate human relationships and that the value of solitude is overlooked. By becoming aware of the value of solitude and using it in a constructive way we are less likely to be devastated by the inevitable loss of social relationships down the road of ageing.
The paradoxical value of separation actually strengthening closeness in an intimate relationship is captured in John Bayley's (1999) biography of his wife Iris Murdoch:
Already we are beginning that strange and beneficent process in marriage by which a couple can, in the words of A.D. Hope the Australian poet, 'move closer and closer apart.' The apartness is a part of the closeness, perhaps a recognition of it: certainly a pledge of complete understanding....Still less is such apartness at all like what the French call solitude a deux, the inward self-isolation of a couple from anything outside their marriage. The solitude I have enjoyed in marriage, and I think Iris too, is a little like having a walk by oneself, and knowing that tomorrow, or soon, one will be sharing it with the other, or equally perhaps again having it alone. It is solitude, too, that precludes nothing outside the marriage, and sharpens the sense of possible intimacy with things or people in the outside world. (pp. 36-37)
There are physical factors that can have a significant impact on the social lives of the elderly. For example, declining vision, hearing or mobility can impose social limitations. Being hard at hearing can make conversation difficult and trying for those who have to "speak up" or repeat themselves often. The hard at hearing person is often painfully aware of the aversive aspect of others having a conversation with them. The presence of dementia in varying degrees among elders can also be an obstacle to social engagement.
As we become older we are forced to revisit some of the developmental tasks that Erik Erikson (1959) proposed. For example, the second stage in his hierarchy is that of autonomy Vs shame and doubt. This stage involves the child not only becoming autonomous but beginning to develop a sense of self. It's hard for elders to feel good about themselves when they feel isolated and helpless. In advanced age autonomy becomes a major issue, especially in nursing homes. Can we do for ourselves or are we dependent upon caregivers? How do we feel about ourselves when we become incontinent or unable to move about without help? It is interesting to note that the circle of life has returned to where it started. Hopefully, by this time we will have accepted C.G. Jung's (1978) statement that:
The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life's morning. The significance of the morning undoubted lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind, and the care of children. This is the obvious purpose of nature. But when this purpose has been attained - and more than attained - shall the earning of money, the extension of conquests, and the expansion of life go steadily on beyond the bounds of all reason and sense? Whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of the morning, or the natural aim, must pay for it with damage to his soul. (p.141)
The eighth stage of Erikson's hierarchy (old age) is the struggle for integrity. The struggle is between the polarities of coherence/ wholeness Vs despair. Integrity requires wisdom. Older people need to maintain, if possible, some generative activity in order to maintain a sense of involvement in life. Without generativity there is stagnation.
Both Jung and Erikson believe that the afternoon of life can be used, as in India, as a time to focus on one's own inner development by engageing in self-observation and becoming more conscious of who or what one is. This means working towards creating ourselves as true individuals who are in the process of uncovering who we are. Erikson and Erikson (1997, pp. 123-124) have cited the term "gerotranscendence" to describe the kind of personal evolution that is possible in our later years.
Human ageing, the very process of living into old age, encompasses a general potential towards gerotranscendence. Simply put gerotranscendence is a shift in meta-perspective, from material and rationalistic vision to a more cosmic transcendent one, normally followed by an increase in life satisfaction. As in Jung's theory of the individuation process, gerotranscendence is regarded as the final stage in a natural process towards maturation and wisdom.... According to the theory, the gerotranscendent individual experiences a new feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, a redefinition of time and space life and death, and a redefinition of the self. This individual might also experience a decrease in interest in material things and a greater need for solitary meditation. (Tornstam, 1993)
Even though our future ageing may bring the inevitabilities of infirmity and ultimate death, for those who are willing to accept it, there is the challenge of the last stages of life. The challenge is to become more human by reconciling the cleavage between what we know and do not know about ourselves at present. ageing in terms of materialism and the pursuit of pleasure is not particularly appealing but if approached as our last opportunity to make the most of our lives in terms of self-development it could be the most progressive stage of our lives. Ageing heightens awareness of our mortality and the passage time and yet if we seize the opportunity our elderly years of our existence may become the most personally fruitful.
John Osborne is happy to respond to questions from readers. Please feel free to make contact at firstname.lastname@example.org
17 July 2003
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