Understanding the Experienced World of Aging

Understanding the Experienced World of Aging

During young adulthood through midlife, human beings are typically concerned with establishing themselves in the wider world. For example, financial tasks during this time include home ownership, paying for children's education, and making challenging decisions about career and family, such as moving to another part of the country or going back to work after taking time to raise children. Each of these developmental tasks forces us to explore our deep personal values. That process of exploration continues into the later years; it does not stop.

Some of the key developmental tasks that many seniors face in later life are:

  1. leaving traditional work;
  2. using leisure time as a source of meaning;
  3. taking on caregiving;
  4. facing chronic illness, disability, and death;
  5. leaving a legacy


Leaving Traditional Work

In later life, new developmental tasks typically include leaving traditional work roles, perhaps for leisure or perhaps for new productive roles, such as volunteerism. The transition to retirement, whatever form it takes, requires complex decisions-for instance, when to start drawing on pension income or whether to move to a new part of the country. You can be helpful with these decisions.

Leisure Time As A Source of Meaning

Many people look forward to later life and retirement as a time to escape from the stress of the workplace and finally enjoy themselves. Old age is typically a time when the work role becomes less important and leisure takes on more significance in life (Leitner & Leitner, 1996). We sometimes think of leisure as free time, which obviously becomes more available after retirement. But leisure can be defined as any activity enjoyed for its own sake, pursued as an end in itself. Some older people are unaccustomed to leisure, so when they leave the rold of work, they may try to replace it with lots of activity. "I'm busier than ever," is a statement sometimes heard from people who are retired (Ekerdt, 1986).

Does leisure in retirement actually replace the work role? Does it become a source of meaning in its own right? The answer depends on the quality of subjective experience during leisure. Leisure may be an end in itself, but moments of leisure also have a developmental pattern that is rich with purpose. Leisure, in short, can be serious business. For example, if we play sports or perform music or read a book, each moment leads to the next in some purposeful developmental pattern. By contrast, other common leisure activities, like television viewing, take up a lot of time but are passive and less demanding. In advising older people about the use of free time in retirement, we need to recognize it can vary tremendously in its meaning and purpose.

There is a common stereotype of retired people playing shuffleboard or hitting the golf course. Actually, as people get older they usually continue the same activities they engaged in earlier in life (Atchley, 1999), a fact recognized by the continuity theoryof aging. True, with advancing age, there tends to be an overall decline in participation rate in many kinds of activities, whether going to church or going to the golf course. But it's a mistake to resort to stereotypes about "old people's" activities, such as bingo or singing old-time songs. Age alone does not serve as a good predictor of what people will Do with their leisure later in life-old people are not all alike (O'Rand & Henretta, 1999). Variations and individual differences, along with the influence of gender and socioeconomic status, play a big part.

Taking On Caregiving

Care giving of spouses and aging parents is often a task of later life. For example, clients might ask you, "Should I put my husband in a nursing home where he can receive better care for his Alzheimer's? We promised each other we would never go to a nursing home." Or, "How can I find reliable professionals to take care of my mother while I go to work?" Such questions don't have easy answers, but professional guidance can be vital in such situations. For just that reason, new professions have sprung up, such as elder law attorneys and private geriatric care managers. These professions were completely unheard of a generation ago.

Care giving decisions today also present complexities unknown to previous generations. It is no longer unusual to find a 60 or 70-yaer old client who has one or more living parents. Care giving presents enormous challenges for persons of any age, but especially for multigenerational families, with four or even five generations alive at the same time. As Americans today marry and have children at later ages, in the future it will not longer be unusual to see people who are approaching retirement while at the same time paying for college tuition or helping out children who face their own stresses as they enter their 20s.

Facing Chronic Illness, Disability, And Death

As people move into more advanced ages, the likelihood of chronic illness, disability, and death increases. Your clients may be faced with decisions about paying for expensive health care costs, including long-term care. They may be concerned with framing or re-framing their wills. These decisions become increasingly intertwined with concerns about protecting assets and estate planning. For these reasons retirement planning can never be approached in purely financial terms. Much more is at stake emotionally in such decisions.

Leaving A Legacy

A large developmental task of later life is what Erik Erikson called generativity-giving attention to one's legacy for future generations (Erikson & Erikson, 1998; Korte, 1999). Leaving a legacy is much more complex than financial planning alone. For example, along with a property will (for assets) and a living will (for health care decisions), some seniors are no drawing ethical wills,the systematic writing down or communicating one's intangible legacy of values to children and family members (Baines, 2001). This process of life review, whether expressed verbally or in a written statement, can be an important and healing part of later life.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. www.csa.us