The secret of successful aging is to always maintain a “future focus” by acknowledging the impact of choices made today on your life in the future. In addition, it is important to seek growth and development in all areas of life throughout adulthood. Those who do will more likely view old age as a meaningful and purposeful stage of life.
Erik Erikson was a 20th century psychologist who greatly contributed to our understanding of how humans develop—both socially and psychologically—and how they age. He was the first to recognize the potential for growth and development throughout our lifespans, even into very old age.
Erickson taught us that the developmental task of old age is reflection—to thoughtfully review and evaluate our lives. He believed that those who are able to look back and accept the course of events and choices made, and to view their lives as being necessary and important, will experience a sense peace and satisfaction.
Encouraging your clients to engage in this reflection process will not only help them come to terms with their past, but also help them come to terms with the end of their lives as well. Feeling fulfilled and content with how one’s life has evolved is the most valuable legacy a person can leave their loved ones. Erikson wrote that the successful outcome of this later life developmental milestone is wisdom—the ultimate gift to one’s self and to others.
Daniel Goleman, author of Focus and Emotional Intelligence, interviewed Erikson and his wife, Joan, in the late 1980s when both were in their 80s. He wrote that “generativity,” was a term often used by Erikson, and means giving back without needing anything in return. Goleman explained this form of giving back can be creative, social, personal, or financial. In addition, “the wisest people” don’t see the positive influence of giving back as being limited to one’s lifetime.
Similarly, many experts on successful aging promote the concept of Elderhood—a role in later life that brings a deep sense of meaning and purpose. But, what does it really mean to be an Elder? What qualities do we look for or try to cultivate?
Barry Balkan, co-founder of the Live Oak Institute, describes an Elder in a way that defines—in a clear and concise way—the characteristics, rewards, and responsibilities of Elderhood:
An Elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential, and whose life continues to have within it, promise for and connection to the future. An Elder is still in pursuit of happiness, joy, and pleasure; and, her or his birthright to these remains intact. Moreover, an Elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.
Therefore, as your clients seek wisdom, their understanding of what is truly important to them will become greater, and it will be easier for them to determine and design what they want their legacy to reflect.