The study of human development has been a major subject, both in the social and natural sciences. The emphasis of this subject has been centered on understanding every day problems faced by people as well as the possible solutions to these problems. Theories of human development can be categorized into two major groups; the continuous and discontinuous theories of development. Continuous theories assume that human development occurs incrementally unlike the discontinuous theories which posit that human development occurs in distinct stages. Each stage of human development is distinct in one way or another. This paper will focus on old age, the last stage of human development for it has been considered by many as a unique stage in human development.
The definition of old age is largely contested among different groups of scholars; although there are different markers of old age. The first marker is subjective old age identity. This means that a person is regarded as an old person when they regard themselves as such. Chronological age is also used to mark old age; this also differs across regions and countries. For instance, the World health organization regards an old person as one who has attained 60 years and above. Old age is also depicted to be socially constructed, where it relates to the social roles of an individual, as well as the ability to carry out adult roles along with physical changes (e.g. being a grand parent).
Generally, old age is characterized by a variety of physical and cognitive impairments as compared to any other stage in human development. These limitations immobilize people in different ways and to varying degrees depending on the prevailing social attitudes and social provisions towards old age. Old people have to make both biological and cultural adjustments due to the changes they experience at this point in their lives. The way people make these adjustments differ depending on their culture. Biological changes in old age are also accompanied by changing social expectations and new existential challenges. Old people have to deal with issues such as the purpose and meaning of life due to the changes in their lifestyles.
They also have to endure with many health issues as their immune system becomes substantially weak. Organs such as kidneys, heart and the liver may gradually start weakening, and this impact negatively on their overall health. This, however, does not necessarily mean that every aged person experiences such health problems. It is important to understand that the aging process is unique to each individual, depending on their distinctive lifestyles.
Significant cognitive changes may also arise amongst the old people. Many of them experience memory loss. This can be attributed to conditions such as the Alzheimer’s disease as well as the Arteriosclerotic illness. This kind of Memory loss particularly relates to the failure to recall certain issues (the memories exist but are harder to locate). Memory loss may also reflect the possible degeneration in other cognitive processes.
Psychologists working with old people have established that they (the old people) experience certain personality changes. For instance, some of them may change from being extroverts to introverts. The explanation for this is that, there is a change in the approach to the challenges in life. Older people are less likely to respond to stressful situations through confrontations. This seems to substantiate Erikson’s theory on human development, where he explains that; old age is a stage of reflection and consolidation, which is aimed at achieving internal integrity. Another explanation for this shift in personality according to Erikson’s theory is that; at this stage, the old people are likely to have resigned to the reality of their declining power and influence to the external world and could therefore have despaired.
Erikson’s theory posits that; to understand the old people clearly, we have to look at their whole life and determine which problems were resolved and those that were not.
Another prominent developmental theory is Piaget’s theory on cognitive development. This theory explains that; individuals are capable of abstract thinking, including logic, deductive reasoning, comparison, and classification since the age of twelve. This theory however does not refer to the cognitive changes that are observed in old age.
Levinson’s theory on human development explains that; from the age of 55, individuals go through three stages, which are; culmination of middle adulthood, late adult transition and late adulthood. Levinson explains that, during midlife transition, people try to create a polarity between the old and the young. This helps to explain why old people make various adjustments on their lifestyles. Levinson agreed with Carl Jung’s explanation that, how people made the adjustments were culturally threaded.
He also believed that each individual is unique. In his theory, Levinson notes that; within each lifecycle, there are stages which comprise of unique biological, social and psychological factors which affect an individual. This can account for the difference in the degree of aging as seen between people who are even closely related. The biopsychosocial perspective refers to the interaction between the biological, psychological and social aspects. This perspective thus attributes the phenomenon to multiple causes. In relation to old age, significant relations which are crucial to the understanding of the aging process can be depicted.
There are two main groups of theories that are commonly used to explain the aging process in human beings. These are biological theories and psycho-social theories. Biological theories address the anatomic and physiological changes that occur with age. These theories attempt to explain the occurrence of aging by focusing on genetic and physiological mechanisms in human beings. On the other hand, psycho-social theories give explanations on the thought processes and behaviors of the old people. The main psycho-social theories are; Activity theory, Disengagement theory and continuity theory.
The disengagement theory assumes that, aging results from the decreased interaction between the elderly with other people in their social system. Activity theory explains behavior patterns established earlier in the person’s life, supports the maintenance of regular activities, roles, and social pursuits. It further argues that, by being extremely active in life, one can live for a longer time. The theory also explains that, when roles change, the aging individual finds substitute activities for these roles.
Continuity theory explains that, basic personality, attitudes, and behaviors remain constant throughout the life span of an individual. This theory was a reaction to disapprove the disengagement theory. The biopsychosocial perspective helps foster the understanding of how the elderly meet their developmental tasks. This relates to many aspects of life. The environment in which the elderly live is a key determinant of happiness, individual autonomy, participation and wellbeing of the elderly individual. Influence of environment can either be positive or negative to the well being of the elderly person. Biological factors like deterioration of health can affect the cognitive process as well the physical ability to meet developmental tasks. Some elderly people may require that their living areas be modified to allow them carry on with their normal life.
Elderly people with cognitive problems find it hard to effectively interact with other family and community members. For example, impairments on hearing as well as other senses like seeing and touch are likely to make communication with the elderly person difficult. In addition, persistent questioning and repetition can be irritating to people with little patience. Social attitudes may enhance or limit the elderly’ participation in communal and social activities. Communities which attach value to their elderly are known for protecting the welfare of their elderly. For instance some communities allow the elderly people to hold key leadership positions. On the other hand, discriminatory attitudes by the community, in families and other social groups can result to neglect, abuse and disrespect for the rights of the elderly.
The achievement of developmental tasks is likely to lead to happiness, positive growth and success later in life. Disappointments in the early life of an individual have been cited to cause unhappiness, disapproval by society, and hopelessness later in life. The discussion of aging trends as a group often overlooks the marked differences that exist in the aging experience. Moody explains that heterogeneity increases with age. These variations are tied to structures of social class, gender and ethnicity. There is also a clear distinction between the ill elderly and the healthy elderly. The ill elderly tend to be poor and subject to chronic illness.
On the other hand, the healthy elderly tend be financially and physically well off. Old men and women are treated differently within the American society. The white elderly seem to be privileged and disadvantaged at the same time. Whites who are socio economically advantaged continue to enjoy various benefits even in their old age. Their black counterparts however do not enjoy many benefits in old age.
Elderly women are said to be discriminated based on their gender and ethnicity, as in the cases of the Jews. Problems of old age stereotypes exist in every social class. The complex interaction of these factors shapes how we understand old age as a stage of human development. Social economic status is however the only way to determine if an old person is socially secure. Nevertheless, there are many economically disadvantaged groups of people who are still able to derive meaning in life and become productive later in life. Women are increasingly seeing old age as period of independence and self affirmation. Most of the aged African Americans are also said to have a high sense of self esteem and a strong sense of happiness.
People from immigrant populations continue to receive differential treatment within the society. This is their view does not promote the health of the elderly population living amongst them. Four elements influence the class position of a person within the society. This includes education, income, property and occupation. These elements play a significant role in determining the accumulated advantages or disadvantages that a person enjoys in old age.
Majority of the elderly population in the United States are whites although there is still a good number of old people from minority groups. Blacks comprise the biggest aged population among the minorities. The growing numbers of Hispanic and Asian populations are likely to increase the population of the elderly people in the coming years. Services and benefits for the elderly under the Older Americans Act were planned with the white middle class population in mind. This has led to immense inequality within the American society, with this system having greatly disadvantaged the minority groups and benefited the white community.