This comes from a book on developmental psychology.
“Although many people cope with old age gracefully and meet death with dignity, this is not always so.”
Developmental psychologists often present human development as a series of tasks that have to be dealt with or mastered at the various stages in life. This is no better illustrated than with the developmental theory of Erik Erikson and the 8 ages of man as it has become to be known.
The diagram shows the various conflicts and tasks each person tries to resolve at each stage. For example as a child reaches adolescence he has to master the stage of leaving home. That means psychologically breaking away from the parents and developing his own social world. At the same time the parents have to master the task of letting the child go and restructuring their life as necessary as their parenting of children comes to an end.
People who complete the different developmental tasks are said to be developing normally. Those who don’t would be seen to develop a neurosis of some kind and this is where therapy is meant to intervene to assist the person to get through the developmental tasks and to move onto the next stage of human development.
According to the original quote I cited above if one enters old age gracefully and meets death with dignity then they are said to be finally completing their last stage of development. This means of course that the elderly person who is not being graceful or dignified would be neurotic and in need of some counsel to assist them to be so.
I am reminded of a time a few years ago when two sisters came to seek my counsel on a matter just like this. Their mother was in her mid eighties and in reasonably good health physically and mentally. She lived in her house where she had lived the last 50 years of her life and indeed one of the daughters lived with her at that time.
The problem presented was that the mother was being recalcitrant and obstreperous. She was hard at hearing and refused to get a hearing aid, she had no intention of leaving her house for a old people’s home and basically did very little of what the daughter’s suggested she do with her life and circumstances. This had the two daughters fatigued, at a total loss for what to do, exasperated with their mother and hence they came to see me.
According to developmental psychology the mother was neurotic and not successfully adjusting to her final stage of development. She certainly was not being graceful and had no desire at all to meet death with dignity.
After much discussion I presented to the sisters that perhaps it was mother’s rebellious, defiant and hard headed attitude that was keeping her alive at this juncture. Perhaps the mother knew (probably unconsciously) that if she ‘gave in’ to their wishes and became more graceful and dignified she could quickly deteriorate and die. If this was the case then one could understand the mothers gritty determination in that she was scared of dying.
The sisters did not know what to make of my suggestion and did not expect me to make such a determination about their domestic situation. They left some what perplexed and decided to think some more on my proposal before they decided about what path to take with their mother in the future.
Human psychological theory can sometimes be a precarious and malevolent thing. One needs to be clear that such theories of human development are not really a mechanism of social control. The study of human psychology is meant to be about how the human functions psychologically not about how society says they should function psychologically.
If an elderly person is meeting their final time of life with grace and dignity who benefits from that? The children and loved ones of the elderly person are feeling stressed and scared as they know their mother is going to die and that will be a painful event for them all. If mother is graceful and dignified about the ending period of her life that will certainly make it much easier for the children and loved ones than if she is being recalcitrant and obstreperous.
Assuming my proposal to the sisters was accurate then the mother’s own Child ego state was scared of dying and she was coping with that fear in the best way she knew.
A psychological theory which says the last stage of life is meant to be graceful and dignified, is that because it is better for those others around the elderly person than for the elderly person. If it is, then it is no longer a theory of human psychology instead it has become a system of social control of a particular group in the society.