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12.7: Old Age and Death

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    In Western culture most people seem to focus on youth. Old age and death are to be avoided, even feared. And yet, both are inevitable, unless we die young, something that is even less desirable than eventually dying of old age. What is most curious, however, is that there is nothing in our culture to suggest that death is something bad. Most people believe in life after death, and that good people go to Heaven. So why would we want to avoid that? In many other cultures, death is not viewed with the same finality as it is in Western culture, and ancestors are revered, and even worshipped. Even within Western culture, there are those who embrace the later years in life, and who do not fear death. These are the perspectives we will examine here.

    Growing Old: Or Older and Growing?

    The title for this section was taken from an essay written by Carl Rogers (1980). Rogers was 75 years old at the time, and he was looking back on the previous 10 years of his life. Rogers was experiencing a number of physical problems associated with the natural deterioration of his body due to advanced age, such as some loss of vision and arthritis in his right shoulder (making it impossible to enjoy playing Frisbee), but he still enjoyed 4 mile walks on the beach and felt physically strong in many ways. As for his career, from the age of 65 to 75 years old he had been very productive, publishing numerous books and articles. He also led many workshops and encounter groups, including some that required him to travel around the world. Professionally he began to take many risks, experimenting with his theories and workshops in ways he might never have considered earlier in his career. As it became necessary for him to rely on others for help, due to his slowing down with age, he also found that he was able to form far more intimate relationships with those colleague/friends who helped him. Even as his wife approached death during those years, he found that the struggle and pain led him to realize just how much he had loved her. Ten years later, as he turned 85 years old, Rogers wrote another essay, On Reaching 85 (Rogers, 1989). Once again, he had been very productive during the 10 years between being 75 and 85 years old, most notably leading a number of peace conferences that led to his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. He felt deeply privileged to have lived long enough to see the great international influence of his work. There can be little doubt that when his life ended, which was actually before this essay was published (he wrote the essay, turned 85, and died 1 month later), he had experienced integrity and wisdom:

    I hope it is clear that my life at eighty-five is better than anything I could have planned, dreamed of, or expected. And I cannot close without at least mentioning the love relationships that nurture me, enrich my being, and invigorate my life. I do not know when I will die, but I do know that I will have lived a full and exciting eighty-five years! (pg. 58; Rogers, 1989)

    Erikson, in contrast, knew something of the despair that contrasts the integrity one hopes for in old age. Never having known his own father, which resulted in an unending identity crisis, he struggled with feelings of having been an inadequate father himself. As famous as he was, he desired the ultimate recognition of a Nobel Prize, and was disappointed that Ghandi’s Truth only won a Pulitzer Prize. He was also very sensitive to criticism in any form. As his own daughter pointed out, it is a tragic irony that individuals such as Erikson do not accept the vast majority of approval as commentary on their real self, but they do experience every shred of criticism as being very real (Bloland, 2005). Erikson himself said that even when a person developed a clear identity following adolescence, significant life events later on can precipitate a renewal of the identity crisis. One can only imagine the terrible psychological burden of sending away their baby Neil to die alone and secretly in a hospital, only to have him live for 21 years. Under such circumstances, Erikson described the search for a new identity as frantic (Evans, 1964).

    One of the most interesting, important, and potentially enjoyable consequences of old age is the likelihood that one has grandchildren. All too often in American culture there are challenges to the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Families move across the country, they are broken apart by divorce, and, in general, our culture does not place value on the experiences of the elderly. However, only the elderly can provide generational continuity, which can be an important aspect of one’s identity. For the grandparents, they can play a vital role in supporting the emotional development of their grandchildren, especially following a traumatic event such as divorce. They can provide adolescents with hope for continued development and purpose throughout life, a prospect that might seem quite difficult for an adolescent to comprehend on their own. And perhaps most importantly, they can simply spend quality time with their grandchildren, without the burden of being responsible for the day-to-day raising of the child (Erikson, 1959; Erikson & Erikson, 1997; Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1986). As shared by Joan Erikson, a grandmother and her grandchild can congratulate themselves for doing a marvelous job picking blueberries, while experiencing the reality of the life cycle:

    After a while I did need to sit down on a rock and rest a bit, but not he. He continued for a moment or so and then stood up very straight in front of me to clarify essentials. “Nama,” he said, “you are old and I am new” - an unchallengeable pronouncement. (pg. 115; Erikson & Erikson, 1997)

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Healthy relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren can benefit everyone in the family. In particular, grandparents provide a generational link that can help young people form their own identities.

    While Carl Rogers and Joan Erikson seemed to accept old age and achieve integrity, Erik Erikson struggled with despair, despite his international acclaim and many obvious accomplishments. Thus, it should become clear that an individual’s point of view is an important aspect of one’s identity. In Still Here (Ram Dass, 2000), Ram Dass, a former Harvard University psychologist turned renowned guru of Bhakti Yoga and Kirtan (see Chapter 17), acknowledges the challenges of old age: physical problems, illness, loneliness, embarrassment, powerlessness, loss of role/meaning, depression, and even senility. The suffering associated with these conditions is, however, self-induced, and one can choose mindfully to not suffer. Whether or not one suffers, therefore, and whether or not one approaches the end of life with relative integrity or despair, is in many ways a choice. And that choice will have a dramatic effect on the final stage of life: death.

    Death and Dying

    It is important to begin by distinguishing between death and dying. Death is the end of life, and as far as scientific psychology is concerned, no one alive has been able to study death itself. Dying is a process that occurs when death is imminent, but does not come immediately. The dying process begins either with old age or the diagnosis of a terminal illness. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is well-known for her research on the dying process, as are the five stages that she described in On Death and Dying (1969): Denial and Isolation; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance. When diagnosed with a terminal illness, most people naturally respond with the common defense mechanism of denial, but there is more to it. Many psychology textbooks do not address the second aspect of this first stage: isolation. Denial is usually temporary, but the dying person may still not be ready or even able to talk about their death, so they isolate themselves psychologically. Unfortunately, hospital staff members often foster this isolation, because of their own fears and discomfort regarding death. Kubler-Ross and her colleagues found it quite difficult to stop hospital staff members from encouraging the isolation of patients clinging to denial, including such simple tasks as keeping the patient’s door open so that people passing by could look in and vice versa. The final stage of acceptance, according to Kubler-Ross, is one that many patients do not achieve. Many people fear death, and Western culture, due in part to its emphasis on science and medicine, and its movement away from religion, encourages people to challenge death. But for those who fight, struggle, and hope to the very end, even they eventually “just cannot make it anymore” (Kubler-Ross, 1969).

    There are, however, many people who do come to accept the inevitability of death, either as a result of illness or old age. Erikson seemed to finally be at peace at the very end of his life, smiling whenever he recognized his wife or daughter:

    I was deeply touched on one visit to Dad when a flash of pleasure crossed his face as I entered the room, and he said faintly to himself, Meine Tochter (“my daughter” in his native tongue). (pg. 204; Bloland, 2005)

    Carl Rogers was largely unconcerned about death, he seldom thought about it. He was, however, quite interested in the work of Kubler-Ross, particularly after he experienced his wife’s dying process. One night, when his wife was near death, he told her that she should not feel obligated to live, all was well with her family, and that she should feel free to live or die, as she wished. After Rogers left that evening, his wife called for the nurses, thanked them for all they had done, and told them she was going to die. By the next morning she was in a coma, and by the next day she was dead (Rogers, 1980). This experience was profoundly moving for Rogers, and awakened a deep spirituality in him, but with a decidedly unscientific aspect to it. Kubler-Ross joined Carl Jung in believing in synchronicity and the possibility of out-of-body experiences, life after death, and the like (see Kubler-Ross, 1983, 1997). Rogers also came to believe in such possibilities. Helen Rogers reported seeing evil figures and the Devil by her hospital bed, as well as a white light that would come and begin to lift her from the bed. Earlier the two of them had attended sessions with a medium who claimed to be able to contact the dead. Rogers was thoroughly convinced that the medium’s abilities were real, and that she had contacted Helen’s deceased sister, and later Helen Rogers herself. According to Rogers, each event was “an incredible, and certainly non-fraudulent experience” (Rogers, 1980).

    For the individual who is, indeed, about to die, what remains of life? Kubler-Ross, Joan Erikson, and Ram Dass all see death itself as a final stage of growth. For Joan Erikson, when hope and trust can no longer sustain the individual, “to face down despair with faith and appropriate humility is perhaps the wisest course,” and one may then strive for gerotranscendence. Indeed, the ninth stage of development proposed by Joan Erikson seems quite similar to the stage of acceptance proposed by Kubler-Ross (Erikson & Erikson, 1997). Ram Dass talks about the different perspective on death in India, and how it helped him to believe that although the body and the mind, as well as their reflection in the ego/self, could die, the soul was something that would exist forever. Accordingly, it is more common in India, and in many other cultures, to prepare for death. The failure to do so in America can have painful consequences:

    When I was in my 30s, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal blood disorder. I went to visit her in the hospital, and all the people around her were saying things like, “You look great!” “You’ll be home in no time!” But she looked terrible, and it was likely she’d never come home again. No one - not my father, her sister or the rabbi - would tell her the truth. In that moment I saw just how isolated she was. She was dying and no one would talk to her about death. We spoke about it, Soul to Soul, and she began to relax. (pg. 149; Ram Dass, 2000)

    Kubler-Ross examined a variety of cultural perspectives on death, in a collection of essays entitled Death: The Final Stage of Growth (Kubler-Ross, 1975). Among Alaskan Indians the time of death was a choice. As death approaches, if it does not come suddenly, the dying person would call together relatives and friends for a time of storytelling and prayer. The dying person’s life would be celebrated, and their death would be accepted as an inevitable matter of fact (Trelease, 1975). In the Jewish faith, tradition holds that the dying process should be met with efforts to alleviate distress as much as possible, but that death must also be accepted as the decree of human mortality by the Eternal and Righteous Judge (Rabbi Heller, 1975). In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, there is no death, but rather a common belief in rebirth. The circumstances of one’s rebirth, however, are determined by how one lived their most recent life (based on karma). So, one’s life, as well as the preparations preceding the death of one’s body in this life, is an important factor in determining the nature of the next life. Of course, one can transcend this cycle of death and rebirth by attaining enlightenment. Thus, it is common in countries like India and China to practice Yoga or Buddhist meditation, as well as other spiritual practices, in order to either attain nirvana or, at least, a more favorable circumstance in the next life (Long, 1975). Each of these traditions, as well as others, considers death to be an important transition between this life and something beyond. It is in anticipation of something beyond that death and dying should be approached, both in terms of one’s actions and one’s state of mind. In conclusion:

    There is no need to be afraid of death. It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are. …when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have, you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings. (pg. 164; Kubler-Ross, 1975)

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    People who have experienced the dying process often report strange occurrences, such as out-of-body experiences, visions of spirits (including angels and demons), or white lights shining down from above and beyond. Do you believe in any of these phenomena? Why do you think they only seem to occur with people who are, indeed, close to death?

    This page titled 12.7: Old Age and Death is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.