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Aug 17

The Poignant Dichotomy of Old Age

Every Thursday, my husband and I drive 10 minutes to my mother-in-law’s well-appointed retirement community to have dinner with her at 4:30. On those days, we have to make sure to skip lunch so we can be hungry at an odd time of day. Although the helpings are small—suitable for the elderly residents’ diminished appetites—the food is actually pretty good. These visits mean the world to Gran, and sometimes she invites a gentleman friend, whom I’ll call Joe, to join us.

Gran is 89 and Joe, 92. Gran, like many of the residents, has become more insular, cocooning much of the day in her apartment, half-watching game shows and playing solitaire on her bed. Conversely, Joe functions as the unofficial ambassador of the place, a lively, genteel presence who is more full of life than most people half his age. A former Air Force pilot—and afterwards a successful businessman—Joe is sharp and alert and remembers your name after a first meeting. He’s curious about everything and asks a myriad of questions about your work, your life, your stand on various world issues. He serves as head of the facility’s hospitality committee, participates in most of the activities and is also the community’s official bridge guru, offering lessons twice a week to newbies and those who want to become more sophisticated players. He’s even gotten Gran to continue playing bridge twice a week, the only activity in which she participates.

After a dinner there, I am always struck by the contrast between these two models of old age. To me, they perfectly illustrate psychologist Erik Erikson’s final, psycho-social stage of life: Integrity vs Despair. Each of Erikson’s eight life stages contains an inherent conflict that must be addressed, hence the “vs” indicating polarities. In Integrity vs Despair, for example, individuals inhabit the final stage of life—when one looks back, takes stock—either with integrity that they have truly lived, loved, engaged and contributed, or despair that they have not addressed their existential imperative.

Undoubtedly, Joe occupies the side of integrity. He is upbeat, intellectually curious and proactive. He is, in a word, engaged. So many of his fellow residents seem tired of living. Indeed, the population of the community, which includes those with dementia, oxygen machines, walkers and scooters, seems unequally divided between integrity and despair. To be fair, some of the residents who appear to be on the side of despair have some sort of cognitive decline, if not dementia; but there are some who are lucid and intact and simply seem depressed. This is no surprise: many of the residents have few or no visitors; they have undoubtedly suffered painful losses, including a loss of purpose. They are, after all, near the end of their lives.

We often see Joe, on the other hand, with yet another female companion—often an “outsider” from another retirement community—on his arm, squiring her about. Since he has a car, he gets around. His lifelong success with the ladies is evident in the dining room; when we are eating together, a procession of tottering women invariably stops by our table, speaking, squeezing his arm or winking at him.

While it’s true that we are born into this world with different temperaments, different aptitudes for resilience—not to mention the complicating matter of Nurture or, as Warren Buffett says, the “ovarian lottery”—we do have agency in our lives. Once we reach some level of maturity and self-awareness, we can intentionally change the way we think and feel and live. We can make the choice to be grateful, to look on the bright side, to reach out to others for comfort and camaraderie. We can even choose to make the world a better place for our fellow human beings. Creating life purpose, a necessity for well-being, is entirely up to us. Viktor Frankl, in his concentration camp memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, calls this “transcendence.” He and many other prisoners survived, he said, by lifting up their companions. After the war, he carried on this spiritual quest as a psychotherapist, helping others find the meaning in their lives.

It is worth noting, then, that before we reach that final stage of life—hopefully, well before—we have the opportunity to choose which side of the Erikson dichotomy we intend to embrace.